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Q&A: Growing Demand in Africa for China’s Private Security Contractors

Two members of Chinese private security contractor Hua Xin Zhong An's maritime protection service. Photo via Hua Xin Zhong An's WeChat account.

Three Chinese miners in the Southwestern Nigerian state of Osun were kidnapped at gunpoint last week, with one reportedly shot while trying to flee. Although all three hostages were released a few days later, the abduction once again reminded Chinese stakeholders across the continent as to how vulnerable they are, both in terms of personnel security and protecting assets from vandalism, theft or terrorism.

Neither Osun state police or the Chinese mining company released much information about the kidnapping, specifically who may have done it and whether a ransom was paid to expedite their release.

Regardless, though, security is becoming an increasingly important priority for Chinese state-owned and private companies, especially those who operate in politically volatile areas like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, South Sudan, and others. And contrary to the perception created by blockbuster Chinese movies like Wolf Warrior II where the PLA swoops in to rescue Chinese nationals in Africa who are in distress, the Chinese military is neither inclined nor properly configured to offer the kind of protection needed to ensure the safety of those miners in Osun or the hundreds of thousands of other Chinese nationals currently living and working in Africa. So, Chinese private security contractors are now stepping up to fill the void.

But there’s a very steep learning curve for many of these Chinese security companies that are beginning to operate in Africa. Chinese law, like those of many countries, prohibits their nationals from carrying weapons overseas. The United States, by contrast, is something of an outlier as it permits its nationals to carry and discharge weapons abroad. To date, only a handful of Chinese contractors have been certified by Beijing to carry weapons, most notably Beijing-based Hua Zin Zhong An Group (华信中安集团)that provides protection services to large Chinese companies in Africa both on land and aboard shipping vessels.

But there’s a lot more to it than just being able to carry weapons. These private security firms also provide their clients with intelligence and broker protection agreements with local tribes and militias in conflict-prone regions where Chinese companies are engaged in resource extraction.

This is a new field that very few people know much about given the high-levels of secrecy that Chinese companies often place on security-related matters. But Dr. Alessandro Arduino, Co-Director of the Security & Crisis Management International Centre at the Shanghai Academy of Social Science (SASS) is the exception. He’s spent much of the past two decades researching Chinese security trends, particularly in Belt & Road countries including those in Africa. I spoke with him soon after the kidnappings in Nigeria to get a better understanding of the increasingly important role that Chinese private security companies are playing in Africa.

ERIC OLANDER: Are Chinese private security companies active in Africa and, if so, to what extent?

DR. ALESSANDRO ARDUINO: The presence of Chinese private security companies in Africa is quite new but they’re present along all of the Belt and Road Initiative countries, so we are starting to see Chines private security companies working with both international and local partners all over the BRI from Pakistan to Central Asia and Africa as well. Africa, in particular, is one of the areas where these companies are now operating but, of course, Africa is very large with more than 50 countries with a variety of companies present in the market. That said, most of the Chinese contractors do essentially the same thing and follow the needs of their clients. So, wherever you find Chinese telecommunications, oil, mining, and other extraction companies then the Chinese private security companies are following them for their asset and personnel protection. 

Many [people] believe that the Chinese private security contractors are nothing less than PLA soldiers, which is not the case at all based on my research.

dr. alessandro arduino

ERIC: What kinds of services are those Chinese PSCs providing their clients in Africa?

DR. ARDUINO: Basically, they’re there to protect their staff against being kidnapped. They also protect facilities against theft. But now, the more that state-owned and private companies have a larger and larger footprint in Africa’s high-risk areas, then Chinese private security companies have to provide more sophisticated services in terms of intelligence gathering and to crisis prevention. So basically, they do risk assessment, crisis mitigation, and protection.

ERIC: How well trained and effective are these Chinese private security companies compared to those from Europe, the US, Israel, and South Africa?

DR. ARDUINO: In Africa, there are a broad range of private security firms, ranging from international companies who’ve been there for decades to newcomers like the Chinese. Training is still an issue with most Chinese [private security] companies but I have to say that just years ago I was wrong when I looked at an 8-10 year time horizon to have a very professional Chinese private security firm but I have to say there are now a few of them already operating at quite a high level.

In this respect, what differentiates China from the other actors in the market are the numbers. In China alone, in terms of guarding companies, you have more than 5,000 security firms which altogether have something like 3 million security officers. Then when you move outside of China the number shrinks abruptly to around 20-25 companies who have high-quality standards. Then, just a few of them who operate in Africa, say for example in the maritime sector, like Hua Xin Zhong An who are internationally certified and are different from other Chinese security contractors since they’re one of the only firms permitted to carry weapons aboard vessels to protect against piracy. So, at least for this company (Hua Xin Zhong An), they train at a very high level and they also have the opportunity to closely with other international security firms operating in Africa which allows them to get up to speed even faster.

ERIC: Is there any feedback that you’ve seen in your research on how the presence of armed Chinese private security contractors is received by local populations?

DR. ARDUINO: That’s quite a big issue and a very complicated one at the same time. First of all, in areas where there are no clear threats, one of the big issues is that these companies have to be trained to avoid any negative spillover with the local population. One of the ideas is to cooperate with local tribes and militias to provide local security services to their corporate clients. 

There is also the other issue as to whether or not there’s some kind of hidden agenda with the Chinese private security companies. This is something that’s been raised not just by local governments but international stakeholders as well, many of who believe that the Chinese private security contractors are nothing less than PLA soldiers, which is not the case at all based on my research. This is still a common misperception.

Additional Reading:

About Dr. Alessandro Arduino:

Dr. Alessandro Arduino is the co-director of the Security & Crisis Management International Centre at the Shanghai Academy of Social Science (SASS-POLITO) and external affiliate at the Lau China Institute, King’s College London. Dr. Arduino’s two decades of experience in China encompasses risk analysis and crisis management. His main research interests include Belt & Road Initiative security, cybersecurity, private military security companies, sovereign wealth funds, China’s political economy in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. He is the author of several books and he has published papers and commentaries in various journals in Italian, English and Chinese languages. Dr. Arduino consults several organizations on security, risk assessment, and mitigation including UNDP, EBRD, and AIG. His latest books are: Securing the Belt and Road Initiative(Palgrave 2018) – China’s Private Army. Protecting the New Silk Road (Palgrave 2017)

He has been appointed Knight of the Order of the Italian Star by the President of the Italian Republic.

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