Chinese Involvement in Africa: the Controversy of “Private” Security
Updated: Oct 19
Matthew M. Ployhart
There are many instances in history in which a more advanced power has influenced the development of another nation in some way. In some cases, these have been purely exploitational: the atrocities committed by Belgium and Japan in places such as the Congo and China during the late-Victorian imperialist era serve as excellent examples of this phenomenon. However, foreign intervention in domestic affairs can also be philanthropic, such as the various charities and relief efforts organized to rescue a victimized nation from turmoil and disruption after a natural disaster of great magnitude. Yet, as far as history can show, most interventions into the affairs of another nation benefit the larger power.
This almost utilitarian mode of assistance can be seen today with China’s involvement on the African continent. According to the Center for Global Development, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) “hopes to deliver trillions of dollars in infrastructure financing to Asia, Europe, and Africa.” The African Center for Strategic Studies notes that of the over one million Chinese immigrants on the continent, more than two hundred thousand of them work for the BRI in some form. “There are over 10,000 Chinese companies in Africa, including at least 2,000 state-owned enterprises,” implying that China holds an impressive stake in developing Africa’s infrastructure.
The Center for Global Development also states that eighty-four percent of these initiatives invest in medium or high-risk countries. Thus, it is reasonable to expect that the Chinese government, and individual Chinese corporations operating in Africa, would be concerned about security. For instance, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), with whom China has partnered as part of the BRI, is among the ten poorest countries in the world. Furthermore, their current president, Felix Tshisekedi, had to battle rebellions and disease outbreaks in the Eastern Bini region at the beginning of his leadership. In fact, Tshisekedi’s election was the “first peaceful transfer of power in the vast country's almost six-decade history.” When investing in nations that are politically unstable or underdeveloped, many investors tend to seek protection for their projects to ensure that their work runs smoothly. China has manifested a significant armed presence abroad in recent years; president Xi Jinping is seeking to expand China’s navy, which, by the count of ships rather than their size, is the largest in the world. Furthermore, China’s military spending is second only to that of the United States. China has and continues to construct naval bases abroad in line with its trade routes and economic interests.
Chinese naval ports or military bases of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) can be found in such nations as Sri Lanka, Djibouti, Bangladesh, Burma, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, and many others, many of whom represent a fraction of Chinese trading interests or are situated close to Chinese routes. For example, they emphasized the need to defend against Somali piracy in the Indian Ocean, which peaked in 2011 following the 2000 Somali Civil War. Thus, between such naval ports and through relief efforts, China’s military is involved, to some degree, in other nations on an official level.
In many other instances, the need for security to protect Chinese initiatives in African Countries, whether they be operated by the state or privately owned, means a turn to private security forces. As there is no one “Africa”—instead the continent is filled with many differing and diverse countries, full of differing and diverse peoples, whether by culture, religion, ethnic group, or history—the implementation and effects of China’s direct or indirect military involvement in African nations are highly varied.
According to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, twenty Chinese private security firms are licensed to operate overseas. These companies are licensed to hire as many as 3,200 contractors (private soldiers). To place that into perspective, PLA peacekeeping efforts are usually capped at around 2,500 troops. Many of these security firms hire ex-PLA soldiers, as well. While some of these groups, such as the China Security Technology Group, Hua Xin Zhong An, and Beijing Dewe Security Service, are more well-known private forces, many of them are protecting state-backed companies or, to some degree, may be state-influenced themselves. This raises the question of what sort of pseudo-military involvement China indirectly has in African nations.
Clearly, such protection can be used to reassure investors in African countries that their (potentially but not always) life-improving innovation projects can go on largely uninterrupted. In this sense, such a military presence ensures that China's increasing development of poorer nations can take place. For example, Chinese investors funded a hydroelectric dam in Karuma Falls, Uganda, a country which remains politically unstable despite their civil war officially ending in 1986. However, there are differing aspects of armed protection of development projects that need to be considered.
For one, Chinese paramilitary groups have attempted to train soldiers in countries such as Kenya and Uganda. In 2018, two Chinese individuals were arrested in Zambia for illegally training members of a local security force. While these operations are technically illegal, they sometimes have the potential to benefit the governments of the nations in which they occur, as more intensive training is provided to the nation’s soldiers (in some cases, even by former members of the PLA). However, that is not always the case when paramilitary groups back rebel factions or more problematic forces. In South Sudan, the China National Petroleum Corporation had been accused of supplying local militias with fuel and armored vehicles to protect its oil fields; these militias had been accused of committing atrocities by the United Nations (UN). (And incidents such as these are not purely isolated to Africa: Cuban security forces that had been accused of repressing protesters were discovered to be trained by such paramilitary groups).
Civilians, as well, have been placed in harm’s way by the presence of these paramilitary groups. In fact, they have been directly harmed in too many instances, and even the presence of weaponry can spawn danger. For instance, in Zambia in 2010, “at least 11 miners were allegedly shot by two Chinese managers during a protest about poor conditions.” Despite having injured these 11 workers, the managers avoided any punishment for their actions. And in 2018, two Chinese guards were sentenced to forty-two months imprisonment in Zimbabwe after shooting and injuring the son of a parliamentarian. Much before this, during a pay dispute, they had fired upon workers at a gold mine. It is clear that there is a present danger to civilians across the African continent by the presence of Chinese arms and paramilitary groups.
Consequently, the African Union has been urged in recent decades to revise its documents from the Convention on the Elimination of Mercenaries (a document which, in 1977, placed restraints and limits on the use of private soldiers and mercenaries) to include such paramilitary groups in its guidelines and limitations, as such groups essentially did not become prevalent until 1985. However, as of late, little action has been taken, and the document remains unrevised.
China maintains a strict no-intervention policy in the territories in which it attempts to fulfill its initiatives (although the extent to which this is practiced in more official settings, such as in Chinese military bases abroad, is likely easier to analyze than in instances of informal armed presences). Thus, while China’s involvement—and sometimes indirect intervention—in African affairs can certainly be questioned in many instances, there is also a distinction that must be made between how significant a role private corporations play compared to the government at large.
However, it cannot be denied that China exerts some level of influence in territories in which they have a significant presence—intentional or unintentional, direct or indirect. Perhaps the most significant of the African Center for Strategic Studies’ observations is that Chinese security firms, in a sense, “are not private. They are controlled by the state and serve its interests.” This is because “at least 51 percent of their capital must be state-owned.” That, combined with the fact that many security organizations protect state-funded projects, implies a heavy link between China’s international ambitions and an armed presence.
Despite the many wrongdoings and instances in which the presence of security firms has resulted in harm, it is undoubtedly important to note that, from the relativist standpoint, it is difficult to classify the various impacts that China has on African countries as distinctly “good” or “bad.” Although it makes logical sense that a country investing in the development of another country abroad is seeking to meet its own interests, many of China's projects in Africa do carry many benefits to the countries in which they are being implemented, such as the provision of clean energy and power plants, the construction of living complexes, and the creation of transportation and communications infrastructure. Many of these projects may very well be viewed with a wary eye by potential developers should there not be some form of protection for them.
This does not negate, however, the acts of violence that have and continue to inflict harm upon the citizens of African nations due to the presence of such protection groups. Thus, there is no single, one-sided answer to the question of how Chinese development projects can operate with protection without placing the lives of locals at significant risk. What is required is greater regulation of such security forces and a greater effort to hold offenders accountable. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to ensure that this happens, and efforts to find a solution are moving slowly. However, it may become more of a possibility through the use of popular legal measures such as those put in place by the African Union in 1977, in the Convention on the Elimination of Mercenaries, and the desire by many to have its guidelines updated.