China’s relentless drive under its flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to build factories, railways, and other infrastructure, even in risky global hotspots, is having an unexpected fallout — the rise of a home-grown private security industry.
Private security companies (PSCs) have spiralled in response to a string of security incidents that Chinese personnel, posted abroad, have confronted in recent years.
Six years ago, a dozen armed security contractors from China worked with the Sudanese Army to rescue 29 kidnapped Chinese workers. The incident took place at the Al Abbasiya village in Sudan’s South Kordofan State. But this was not a one-off incident. In July 2016, China’s DeWe security firm was called in to marshal an evacuation plan for more than 300 workers and civilians belonging to the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC). These employees had been trapped in the crossfire between two warring factions in Juba, South Sudan.
Chinese companies that have dared to enter resource-rich countries ruled by weak governments,have also faced serious situations related to international terrorism. Two years prior to the South Sudan incident, Veterans Security Services, a Chinese PSC, pulled out nearly 1,000 workers from Samarra, Iraq. These employees had been caught in the crossfire between the Iraqi military and the dreaded Islamic State.
The demand for quality Chinese PSCs has spiralled in tune with the BRI — Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature mission of reviving the ancient Silk Road by building connectivity, industrial parks, Internet highways, and icons of the culture industry, across the vast Eurasian landmass, and Africa.
Unsurprisingly, PSC numbers began to rise with Beijing’s overseas forays under the BRI. By 2013, the number of registered PSCs spiked to 4,000, drawing more than 4.3 million security personnel into their ranks. But in the next four years, the numbers shot up to 5,000, according to a study by the Mercator Institute for China Studies, and the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies. The PSC boom is unlikely to taper any time soon, as thousands of Chinese nationals head to overseas destinations of questionable political stability. It is estimated that around 30,000 Chinese nationals have been posted in Pakistan alone, to develop the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
In deploying their personnel abroad, Chinese PSCs are following a typical home-grown protocol. PSC personnel during their overseas deployment avoid carrying weapons. Instead, they are encouraged to work with local government security personnel in tackling situations that may require the use of force. The PSCs’ operational drill has apparently drawn lessons from the Blackwater shooting incident. Personnel from the American PSC killed 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad in 2007.
The doctrine of collaborating with local armed forces while remaining unarmed has also been shaped by another incident in Zambia. The Financial Times has reported that in 2010, supervisors at a Chinese-owned coal mine in Zambia fired into a crowd of workers demanding higher pay, injuring 11 and triggering an anti-China backlash. Apparently, the Chinese authorities are quietly encouraging the PSCs to enter security grey zones abroad. This is a much better option than sending troops, whose presence in the host country can easily feed into the collective memory of colonial enslavement.
Atul Aneja works for The Hindu and is based in Beijing.