It has been described as China’s ‘Private Army.’ Fueled by growing demand from domestic companies involved in the multi-trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, independent security groups are expanding in the country.
In 2013, there were 4,000-registered firms, employing more than 4.3 million personnel. By 2017, the figure had jumped to 5,000 with staff numbers hovering around the five-million mark.
Many of these operatives are former People’s Liberation Army veterans, who have been recruited by security companies closely linked to ‘New Silk Road’ projects.
“Like their Western counterparts, most Chinese PSCs employ former soldiers or former police officers, a fact that blurs the line between China’s security forces and private security providers,” a report by the Mercator Institute for China Studies, or MERICS, a leading German think tank, and the International Institute for Strategic Studies in the United Kingdom stated.
“Beijing keeps the People’s Liberation Army and paramilitary groups such as the People’s Armed Police under the tight and exclusive control of the Chinese Communist Party. However, a booming domestic private security sector has developed since the legalization of PSCs in September 2009,” the study, entitled China Security Project, added.
At the heart of this expansion has been President Xi Jinping’s grandiose Belt and Road Initiative. These ‘New Silk Road’ superhighways will connect China with 68 countries and 4.4 billion people across Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe in a labyrinth of infrastructure developments.
Launched in a fanfare of publicity, the ambitious program has become an extension of Beijing’s global aspirations and the centerpiece of its economic foreign policy.
“Following the build-up of infrastructure and investment projects along [the] BRI, private security companies from China are also increasingly going global – to protect Chinese assets and the growing number of Chinese nationals living and working in countries along the BRI, in sometimes unstable regions,” the report compiled by MERICS and IISS revealed.
“[At least] 20 provide international services, employing 3,200 security personnel, in countries like Iraq, Sudan and Pakistan,” it added.
Yet most of these groups operate in a “legal gray zone” caught between Chinese, international and host country laws, where they “exist.”
Operatives are officially barred under China’s legal system, and in many countries they work in, from carrying or using weapons.
For companies such as the Chinese Overseas Security Group, or COSG, this means organizing training for local staff, while focusing on logistics and planning.
A consortium of security firms, COSG was sent up in 2016 and operates in Pakistan, Turkey, Mozambique, Cambodia, Malaysia and Thailand.
“In eight years’ time, we want to run a business that can cover 50-60 countries, which fits with the [BRI] coverage,” John Jiang, the managing director of COSG, said.
Still, overseas nationals in leading state-owned enterprises have come under fire in some of the world’s major hot spots. Armed Chinese security contractors helped the Sundanese army rescue personnel in Al-Abbasiya village in South Kordofan state in 2012.
More than 300 workers were then evacuated from South Sudan in 2016, while 1,000 Chinese contractors were forced to flee Samarra in Iraq two years earlier after a Baghdad government stand-off with the terrorist group Islamic State.
Headline-grabbing incidents such as these finally prompted Beijing to beef up its overseas security.
By 2016, China had about 3,200 security operatives protecting domestic personnel from 16,000 companies operating abroad, data from the Overseas Security and Defense Research Center in Beijing highlighted.
“Because China doesn’t have a strong military presence in foreign countries, and most foreign governments prohibit security service companies from carrying guns, it is crucial for Chinese security companies to build close communication channels with local police and army bases,” Li Jiang, the head of the overseas department of China Security and Protection, said.
One area of concern is the US$62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, or CPEC, which is a strand of the ‘New Silk Road’ superhighways.
Based on a 3,000-kilometer network of roads, railways and pipelines, the development will transport oil and gas from Gwadar on the Arabian Sea to the Chinese city of Kashgar in north-western Xinjiang.
Roughly, 30,000 Chinese workers are employed on different projects in Pakistan. “The CPEC runs through notoriously unstable and insecure parts of Pakistan,” the MERICS and IISS report, said.
“Security concerns are therefore significant, particularly in those parts of Pakistan where Chinese nationals have been targeted by extremists, such as in Quetta and Karachi. In December 2017, Beijing even warned Chinese nationals in Pakistan that more attacks on Chinese targets could be imminent,” it continued.
“[While] foreign PSCs are barred from working in Pakistan, companies such as China Overseas Security Group, Frontier Services Group and HuaXin ZhongAn have evidently found loopholes around this and continue to offer consulting and hands-on security services,” the report added.
Indeed, the expansion of independent Chinese security companies along key Belt and Road routes is posing some serious questions about accountability.
Alessandro Arduino, who is the co-director of the Security & Crisis Management International Center at the Shanghai Academy of Social Science, has charted the rise of the sector in his book China’s Private Army: Protecting the New Silk Road.
“Further important questions that must be answered include whether the Chinese PSCs will take orders from the government and whether Beijing is going to frame a clear code of conduct and related rules of engagement,” he pointed out in an opinion piece for The Diplomat.
Transparency is not exactly a buzzword in China’s corridors of power, but it would force this ‘Private Army’ to emerge from the shadows.