In the beginning of the 21st century, China’s presence in Africa in terms of trade and investment was almost negligible. By 2009, it had overtaken the US in Africa by becoming its largest trading partner and by 2020, under the Belt and Road Initiative, it invested in Africa more than $60 billion of the total $139 billion it pumped in for projects across the world.
China has more than 10,000 of its companies working for different BRI projects in Africa. To man these projects, as per the US-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, more than 200,000 Chinese workers were involved as of 2018.
What is surprising China watchers is the Middle Kingdom’s double standard on the issue of non-interference; its Foreign Office Spokesperson Zhao Lijian says, “China always adheres to the principle of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs”. This charade was recently exposed by Germany’s Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, a Left-leaning organisation that promotes alternative concepts for social transformation in Germany and other corners of the world.
According to this organisation, there are as many as nine Chinese private security companies (PSCs) which are spread in more than 40 African countries and are managing security of Chinese engineers, administrators and others engaged in infrastructure development in the continent under the ambitious BRI.
Beijing DeWe Security Services has 20,000 security-personal, largely drawn from retired PLA personnel, in African countries — Sudan, South Sudan, Mozambique, Senegal and Angola. These security personnel are engaged in guarding, escorting, maritime protection and site protection for Chinese interests.
The Foundation further said that China Security Technology Group, which was formed in 2016 has 30,000 security personnel, also drawn from ex-PLA ranks, placed in Algeria, Sudan, South Sudan and other African countries. These security personnel provide armed protection, armed
and help in security assessment for China-led projects in the continent.
Another Chinese security firm, Hua Xin Zhong An Security has 21,000 security personnel manning BRI projects in Ethiopia, Kenya and other African countries, while China Overseas Security Group has 20,000 well trained security personnel to guard China-led projects in all BRI zones of Africa, according to domain experts.
Similarly, firms like Genghis Security Advisor, VSS Security, Shandong Huawei Security Group, ZhongjunJunhong Security Service Co have their security personnel to protect and guard China-led oil and gas companies, rail, road and port projects in different parts of Africa. As per Beijing-based China Overseas Security and Defence Research Centre, Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) spend around $10 billion annually on security of Chinese interests in Africa and other parts of the world. Such moves have, nonetheless, offered Beijing a pretext for greater interference in Africa through its retired PLA personnel, working as private security contractors.
In recent years, Chinese interests in Africa have been experiencing threats emanating from local conflicts, organized crimes, kidnapping, terror attacks and piracy. In February, 2012, when 29 Chinese workers were kidnapped in Sudan’s South Kordofan, services of the two Chinese PSCs such as VSS Security and Beijing DeWe Security Services were hired to get these Chinese workers released from their kidnappers. These private security companies were also involved in the evacuation of 330 Chinese workers from South Sudan after an escalation in conflict in the northeastern nation, which led to the killing of many people, including two Chinese peacekeepers. In 2018, Dewei Overseas sent 600 security personnel trained in martial arts to oversee building of the Nairobi-Mombasa railroad and for the protection of Chinese oil company Sinopec’s interests.
Interestingly, work areas of these PSCs are divided as per Chinese business interests’ threat perceptions in different African zones. For example, in North Africa, except for Libya, focus of the Chinese PSCs remains in the protection of embassies, ports and infrastructure. In West Africa, PSCs are used to thwart threats from Boko Haram to maritime interests in the Niger Delta and Gulf of Guinea.
In Sahel, Libya and South Sudan, PSCs are used for the protection of companies and individuals. Across Central Africa, they are employed to deal with any emerging conflict. Highly trained private security personnel are placed in East Africa for anti-hijacking and maritime security. Similarly in South Africa, key aim of the PSCs remains in the protection of export-oriented goods.
But presence of Chinese PSCs, which though maintain a low profile, is not enough to protect Chinese individuals or companies from attacks. In August 2019, nine Chinese and eight Ukrainian sailors were kidnapped by pirates after attacking two merchant vessels off the Cameroon coast. Three China Railway Corp executives were killed along with other foreigners in the attack on the Blu Radisson Hotel in Mali’s national capital, Bamako in 2015. These attacks speak volumes of Chinese private security personnel’s professionalism, talent and skill. They are no match to their Russian or Western counterparts who are highly professional and well paid. They are also incompetent when it comes to learning necessary local language and security skills, experts alleged.