China builds up private security to protect overseas interests in hostile, unstable regions

China builds up private security to protect overseas interests in hostile, unstable regions
Armed Chinese security personnel march outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China on Jul 19, 2023. (Photo: AP/Ng Han Guan)

  • Forget the one-man “wolf warrior” depictions in bombastic films – it takes an army of private security contractors to ensure Chinese firms are protected abroad
  • Ukraine war and Israel-Gaza war illustrate the dangers that Chinese investors could face in unstable regions, including some participants in the Belt and Road Initiative
South China Morning Post 25 Dec 2023 09:21AM

When Wolf Warrior 2 swept through China’s cinemas in 2017, the harrowing war thriller resonated with audiences like no film ever had. Devoted to flag-waving patriotism, it scratched a nationalistic itch by featuring a one-man Chinese army standing up to foreign mercenaries while saving his compatriots.

And aside from smashing box office records, it gave rise to a term known as “wolf-warrior diplomacy”, with official rhetoric and practices that are more confrontational and combative than calm and cooperative.

Subsequent films further cashed in on nationalistic pride by depicting heroic Chinese forces abroad, as in 2018’s Operation Red Sea, which was inspired by the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s evacuation of Chinese citizens during the 2015 Yemen civil war. 

These types of blockbusters – carefully edited and released under the scrutiny of state censors – fed into the narrative that China should protect its overseas interests when they are threatened, and by force if necessary.

But in reality, it is less likely to be the People’s Liberation Army swooping in to save the day, and more likely to be a well-paid private security contractor hired to protect the overseas interests of Chinese businesses – especially those with operations in less stable regions.

The Ukraine war and the Israel-Gaza war illustrate the types of dangers that Chinese investors could face in the course of doing business overseas.

And such conflicts may be further reinforcing the need for Beijing to make new contingency plans to safeguard Chinese interests abroad while ensuring that trade routes continue to bring home critical goods such as valuable minerals.

However, given Beijing’s limited military presence overseas – it has only one overseas base, in the Horn of Africa; contributes to a UN peacekeeping force; and uses naval warships in anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden – analysts say it appears that diplomacy and the use of private security firms will be increasingly relied on, particularly in facilitating the China-led Belt and Road Initiative

At a seminar in early December, jointly held by the China-Africa Business Council and the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, participants raised the bar for Chinese security firms – pushing for them to become more internationalised, more localised with regional staff and political support, and more commercialised.

“Outbound Chinese investors face security challenges and a complex environment,” said an official statement summarising the meeting. “A tailor-made approach is needed for international security projects. It must differ depending on the industry or country.”

The African continent – the setting for Wolf Warrior 2 – is one of the regions China is invested heavily in, where the number of China-invested companies accounts for 7.1 per cent of the global total.

The world’s second-largest economy has set up around 47,000 overseas firms across 190 countries or regions, mainly in energy, mining, infrastructure construction and manufacturing sectors.

They have hired a total of 4.1 million employees, including 2.5 million foreign citizens, according to a 2022 report by the Ministry of Commerce.

Outstanding outbound direct investment totalled US$2.75 trillion by the end of 2022, third-most in the world for the sixth straight year, and up from US$163.1 billion in 2021, ministry figures show.

Most of the new investment in the past decade flowed to countries included in China’s belt and road plans, despite many being relatively high-risk regions.

China is the world’s major seaborne buyer of iron ore, copper, soybeans and many other commodities, while more than 1 million Chinese students are studying overseas and tens of millions of Chinese travel worldwide every year.

However, the seminar this month drew some of the domestic security heavyweights together, including Huayuan Security Guard; Dewe Security, a subsidiary of Hong Kong-listed Frontier Services Group; Huaxin Zhongan Group; Shanghai-listed Anbang Save-Guard Group; officials from China’s foreign ministry; representatives from the China Security Association; and dozens of other Chinese firms.

“There are ongoing traditional safety issues in regions like West Asia, Africa and Latin America,” said Li Xiaopeng, CEO of Frontier Services, one of China’s largest private security firms.

Li has been in the business for almost a decade, and his biggest clients are state-owned enterprises with overseas construction projects.

“But there are also a lot of new issues to be tackled, including the Ukraine war and the Israel-Palestinian conflict. We have got inquiries about helping evacuate Chinese citizens,” he told the Post.

A Belt and Road Initiative working group issued an official document in late November highlighting the need to “hammer out the safety protection in a detailed way”, state media Xinhua reported.

“Guidelines are needed for corporations on containing risks,” it was quoted as saying. “(Corporations have to) strengthen their knowledge and ability to assess risks before they go out to invest elsewhere.”

In an online statement published last month, the Ministry of State Security also vowed to ensure the security of China’s overseas mining projects, personnel and assets.

“It is set to ensure the safety of Chinese companies ‘going global’, and safeguard the security of key mineral-resource supply chains,” it said, without elaborating on how.

Muhammad Jilani, a private security adviser in Pakistan, said that the growing presence and expanding scope of the Belt and Road Initiative makes it “natural” to see a rising demand for “robust security programmes”.

“The magnitude of security deployments include AI, digital (cyber/IT), physical,” he explained, adding that private security companies will operate by referencing each country’s national policy in their overall schemes of employment.

The demand is high partly because many Chinese projects are operating in some of the world’s most dangerous regions, such as war-torn South Sudanese oilfields. Meanwhile, Beijing is encouraging more companies to go global.

In 2011, China launched its largest overseas evacuation in riot-torn Libya by rescuing 35,860 Chinese nationals via land, sea and air operations in about 10 days.

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, for instance, is one of the regions that Beijing invested heavily in over the past 10 years to bypass the Malacca Strait by transporting goods from the Pakistani port of Gwadar to China’s far western region of Xinjiang.

Terrorist attacks on Chinese people and projects were reported, including one occurring in August targeting a convoy carrying Chinese citizens.

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a new high of 55 overseas security alerts last year, when the Ukraine war ignited more conflicts across the globe.

When the Israel-Gaza war began, the Chinese embassy warned that Chinese citizens should avoid travelling to those countries, while advising any Chinese in the region to leave.

Tom Rembielinski, manager for safety and training at Germany’s Bremen Airport Training Academy, said that the privatisation of safety work is “nothing new”, and that it is a “logical step” for the Chinese government to outsource security needs to the private sector.

He added that the US, EU and Russia “have been doing this for years”.

Relative to some international security firms with decades of experience – including G4S, Olive Group and International SOS in the United Kingdom – China’s private security operations are new to the market.

“Internationally known and well-established foreign private security companies … typically would be allowed to carry firearms/weapons, which Chinese private security companies, due to domestic regulations, are not allowed to do,” said Yuan Jingdong, an associate professor specialising in China defence and foreign policy at the University of Sydney.

“Well-established foreign private security companies would also charge much higher premiums for protection.

“Chinese private security companies … on the other hand, could only compete with lower tenders or be given contracts by Chinese companies due to the ease in communication, shared culture and other factors.”

They are also fairly small compared with their Western peers. For instance, the annual revenue of the Hong Kong-listed Frontier was HK$964 million (US$123 million) in 2022 versus G4S’ revenue of about US$20 billion.

And even though some of China’s security firms are privately owned, they often have historical ties with the army or police forces.

Take Huaxin Zhongan, for instance. It was set up by military veterans in 2004, and 70 per cent of its mid-level or top management are veterans.

To serve more than 60 overseas clients in countries such as Uganda, Malaysia and Pakistan, the company has more than 800 employees overseas, of which 660 are expatriates, according to its website.

The company specialises in escorting shipments and countering low-altitude drones, but its main business involves providing security guards for Chinese projects, along with risk assessments and consulting.

The business potential is still quite large, as the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC), which oversees the country’s 97 large industrial giants with combined assets of 81 trillion yuan, is becoming increasingly wary of the threats facing overseas Chinese projects.

“If the security work is not properly managed, the entire project will be subject to questions (by SASAC),” said Li at Frontier Services Group, warning that the international environment is also relatively poor.

“It’s a two-pronged strategy. One is the private security power provided by our own companies. The other is seeking the governmental support of related countries.”

He warned that the development of Chinese private security companies still has a long way to go.

“It’s more appropriate to let private companies develop China’s private security sector,” Li added, noting that companies such as Frontier are struggling to secure talent and the relevant policy support in China to carry out private security across the world.

“Other than that, there’s a need to consolidate a comprehensive system by researching the work of international private security practices, so that Chinese private security companies are ready to work with their global counterparts.”

This article was first published on SCMP.