Beijing’s Guards:

The Chinese embassy in the Central African Republic (CAR) recently utilized fighters from the Russian private military company known as the Wagner Group to rescue twelve people working in gold mines in that country. It then evacuated the miners to the CAR capital, Bangui. This occurred after intelligence emerged about attacks that militants had planned on Chinese-run mining sites located near the CAR prefecture of Ouaka, and prompted discussion about the nature of Beijing’s relationship with private security companies. In recent years, there has been a marked increase in Beijing’s use of private security companies to pursue various interests.

There is no doubt that the resurgence of the Chinese "security for employment" industry, which is deeply rooted in Chinese history and business practice, is largely the result of the early market reforms in the 1980s, and the increasing integration of China into global trade. However, since 2013, after the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), there has been more attention paid to how private security companies can be used to protect Chinese citizens and financial assets abroad.

Significant Expansion

In recent years, Chinese private security companies have expanded significantly. The current array of these companies sheds light on the following points:

1. Rise of domestic security companies: National companies that provide services within China have markedly grown in recent years. These domestic companies focus on critical personnel, close protection, and credit recovery. This broad category includes hundreds of companies that benefit from cheap labor, certain municipal and regional ties with police and military police officials, and a favorable environment due to the lack of regulation governing this kind of work. Other domestic companies have evolved to offer more specialized services ranging from intellectual property protection to corporate security, managing the security of human resources, and armored logistical protection.

Meanwhile, other domestic companies cooperate with foreign companies to support domestic bids for Chinese tenders for international security services, risk assessment, and external support for Chinese insurance companies. There is a strong communications network with large state-owned companies and the banking and insurance sectors. However, the main weakness in this field is not a lack of clients, but rather internal issues related to limited domestic human resources who are properly trained. There is a particular deficiency in skills related to risk assessment, logistical expertise, and foreign languages and cultures, as well as a lack of risk management and insurance coverage for staff.

2. Chinese security companies seek to develop international presence: Unlike companies that are primarily domestic in focus, many Chinese security companies have a significant interest in developing their international presence. Chinese companies with an advanced international background have emerged in the field of security services. These companies cooperate with the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and major state-owned companies. One such company is Beijing’s Shenzhen Huaqiang for Technology Security (ZGCS), a company specializing in technology security solutions. It has become a major player in China’s private security industry. This company has expanded its services outside China and has been involved in providing security solutions in international contexts, especially in Africa and the Middle East. It provides services such as video surveillance, access control systems, and AI security solutions. It has also been involved in securing critical infrastructural projects and public spaces.

3. Chinese security companies diversify their activities: In recent years various Chinese companies have emerged in the security field, including companies with diverse activities. One such company is the Chinese Security and Protection Group Ltd. (CSG), one of the largest private security companies in China. This company offers a broad range of security services including security consulting, human bodyguards, electronic security, and technological security solutions. The Great Wall for Military Industries Co. (AGWM) is also known for its expertise in military and security products and services. It offers a wide range of security solutions, including armored vehicles, bullet-proof products, and security consulting. It has expanded its operations at the global level and has been involved in security projects in several countries.

Other companies involved in advanced technological solutions have also appeared on the scene, such as the Chinese Security and Surveillance Technology Group (CSST), a leading company in the field of electronic security and surveillance solutions. The company focuses on providing advanced technologies such as video surveillance, face recognition, and AI security systems. It has a strong presence in domestic and international markets.

4. Expanded geographic scope of Chinese security companies: Chinese security companies operate in various different geographic areas and countries. According to some estimates, there are around 5200 Chinese private security companies that employ more than 4 million employees, most of whom are veterans of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. About 20 to 30 of these companies work in BRI countries throughout South and Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.

Reports indicate that Chinese security companies are currently working in around fourteen African countries. Some countries such as South Africa have stringent regulations governing the behavior of Chinese security companies. Meanwhile, other countries such as Sudan and South Sudan give the Chinese more freedom in how they operate, which some experts observe could endanger those populations.

5. Ongoing ties between private companies and the Chinese state: Unlike other private military contractors in some regions such as in Africa, Chinese private security companies are not really private. These are state-owned companies subject to the Chinese government in Beijing, and which the government has licensed to conduct work outside China. This list includes the Huaxin Zhong An Security Group, China Security Technology Group, and Beijing DeWe Security Service, and includes around 2000 contractors to protect a Kenyan railway that cost 4 billion USD.

6. Chinese companies develop networking policies: Some Chinese security companies network with security companies and groups in other countries to support their activities. In some cases, Chinese companies work closely with local security companies or militias when they need to rescue Chinese citizens who are in danger. This was what occurred when China used Wagner Group fighters to rescue miners in the CAR in July 2023 and evacuated them to the capital, Bangui. In other cases, Chinese private security companies have set up new security partnerships with residents of their host countries.

Various Drivers

The repeated armed attacks on Chinese citizens working in various places abroad created a security furor in China. This has led over time to utilize private security forces to protect Chinese citizens and foreign assets. The growth of Chinese private security companies is linked to various key factors, including:

1. Side effects of expanding foreign investments: China’s rapid economic development, increasing foreign investment, and expanding business ties with other countries and regions (many of which are in difficult locations from a security standpoint) led to a growing number of incidents affecting Chinese citizens and assets. This produced a need for security services to protect Chinese companies and their interests. Private security companies offer a variety of services such as risk assessment, executive protection, security consulting, and crisis management. China realized that only relying on the economic development of African countries would not be sufficient to protect its workers and projects.

Rapid growth has led to direct Chinese foreign investment and the expansion of China’s trade relations with other countries and regions, often in areas that are difficult from a security standpoint. This has led to a growing number of incidents affecting Chinese citizens and assets. There has therefore been an increased need for private security companies to provide security to Chinese citizens abroad. 

2. Launching legislation to bolster the private security industry: The Chinese government has implemented legal reforms to encourage the growth of the private security industry. In 2010, China’s State Council issued regulations enabling private security companies to legally operate in accordance with licensing and oversight requirements. These reforms created a legal framework for establishing and running private security companies and spurred the creation of many new private security companies.

3. Securing the Belt and Road Initiative: The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative projects employ tens of thousands of Chinese citizens and comprise billions of dollars of infrastructure. The BRI projects are also key targets for attacks by extremist groups. For this reason, the BRI, which aims to strengthen economic cooperation and communications between China and other nations, has requested private security services. Chinese companies working on BRI projects often require security support for complex high-risk environments.

China has brought in thousands of former soldiers from the People’s Library Army as well as former members of Special Operations Forces and other former military contractors to work throughout Africa in protecting costly infrastructural projects such as the Kenya Standard Gauge Railway.

4. Combatting domestic security threats: China faces various local security challenges including terrorism, electronic threats, and social unrest. Private security companies, therefore, play a role in countering those threats by offering services such as security consulting and technical solutions for private and public sector clients. Furthermore, developments in the security sphere and technological advances create demand for specialized security services. Chinese private security companies have adapted to provide sophisticated technological security solutions, risk assessment, executive protection, and other specialized services to meet clients’ diverse needs.

5. Expanding Chinese ambition in the international arena: China’s growing leadership ambitions in the international arena in recent years have been accompanied by an expanded Chinese presence in various regions. This has led to increased demand for private security services, especially in situations where it would be difficult for governmental security institutions to operate. Chinese private security companies have diverse functions: They offer risk assessment services to help companies and individuals identify threats and potential areas of weakness. These companies also offer executive protection to leading public figures, CEOs, and prominent foreign visitors. This includes direct protection services, threat assessments, plans for secure travel, and ensuring the safety and privacy of clients. 

6. Benefits of private partnerships: Like other countries, the Chinese government has sought partnerships with private security companies, particularly because of the flexibility of the latter as compared to the work environment of governmental security institutions. The Chinese state establishes partnerships with private security companies to carry out tasks more quickly and to strengthen its capability to respond rapidly to emerging global events. Beijing perhaps also hopes that having private companies carry out security operations that could elicit negative international responses will mitigate criticism that could damage the Chinese state’s image or reputation. 

Furthermore, it is important to note that Chinese private security companies enable the Chinese government to maintain stringent oversight of the private security industry. Private security companies must obtain permits from the relevant state authorities and comply with regulations on employment, training, and operational procedures. The Chinese government maintains this oversight to ensure that these private security activities do not undermine public security or national interests. As the Chinese private security industry continues to grow, and in light of China’s increased involvement in resource-rich but unstable regions, the role of these private security companies in China and at the global level will expand. It is likely that these companies will help protect Chinese investments, support Chinese foreign interests, and provide security solutions to confront emergent threats and challenges.