The Rising Influence of Chinese Private Security Companies
China Strengthens Resolve To Protect Expatriates
In the past two decades, the global surge of China's economic power has necessitated an escalation in the protection of its overseas enterprises and personnel, especially in regions known for volatile security landscapes.
The public awareness of these risks was galvanized by the popular "Wolf Warrior" franchise, a celluloid depiction of Chinese citizens working abroad under the looming threat of foreign mercenaries.
Recent attacks on Chinese nationals in Pakistan have further underscored the urgency of these protection measures. This recognition, however, clashes with Beijing's approach of respecting the sovereignty of other nations, as emphasized in its 2015 Military Strategy and 2019 Defense Strategy White Papers, limiting its options for military intervention.
Chinese companies operating abroad have responded to the security challenges by collaborating with local authorities and hiring private security companies (PSCs), the Center for Strategic and International Studies noted.
With the proliferation of Chinese PSCs, a new model of protection has emerged, predicated on shared culture, language, and a sense of kinship, particularly for Chinese companies needing defense.
By 2022, China was home to approximately 7,000 PSCs, with 20-40 operating globally across 40 countries. These PSCs provide diverse services, from selling electronic surveillance systems and offering consultancy to deploying armed personnel to protect Chinese assets and individuals.
The PSCs presence has been markedly prominent in Asia and Africa, regions with cultural similarities and malleable local governments. However, their footprint in more developed nations, Latin America, and the Caribbean is somewhat restrained due to a lack of local experience and competition from well-established security firms familiar with local laws.
Despite these hurdles, Chinese companies' expanding presence in Latin America has created an inherent demand for Chinese PSCs. Since 2000, Chinese enterprises have invested more than $184 billion in over 600 projects across Latin America and the Caribbean, according to the esteemed Latin America-China academic network.
However, these investments, particularly in sectors such as petroleum, mining, and construction, have been fraught with security challenges. Recent incidents of violence, leading to halting operations in Colombia, illustrate the pressing security risks for Chinese ventures in Latin America. Coupled with a deteriorating economic climate and social unrest, these challenges are likely to surge.
Notably, Chinese policy documents such as the 2016 China-Latin America Policy White Paper, the China-CELAC 2022-2024 plan, and the February 2023 white paper on China's "Global Security Initiative," convey Beijing's intent for multifaceted security cooperation with Latin America, but remain silent on the role of PSCs.
Chinese PSCs have maintained a low profile in Latin America and the Caribbean, but Chinese-language search results on platforms like Baidu reveal numerous PSCs operating or seeking opportunities in the region.
Companies such as China Security Technology Group and Beijing Dujie Security Technology Company have a presence in Peru and Argentina, respectively, whereas China Overseas Security Group is exploring potential opportunities. There's also evidence of Chinese PSCs working in Uruguay, Venezuela, and across Central America.
This expanding network of Chinese security operations suggests a deeper, possibly government-related, infrastructure of safety. Yet, the largely covert nature of these operations, shrouded in the veil of Chinese-language media, calls for greater transparency. Ensuring proper regulation, respecting sovereign interests of host countries, and protecting local citizens becomes imperative.
China issued "Security Management Guidelines for Overseas Chinese Funded Companies, Institutions, and Personnel," in recent years, but their enforcement remains lax, with the Chinese government showing little interest in its execution, barring political or other self-interest motivations.
As China's interests in the region continue to swell, an increased presence of armed Chinese nationals prioritizing their operations' interests could potentially lead to local casualties, exacerbating tensions. In addition, rising incidents of gang violence, extortion, and hate crimes against Chinese diaspora communities may push for increased protection from Chinese PSCs.
China's 14 overseas police outposts operate in eight Latin American and Caribbean countries, some without local government approval, present another complex layer. Collaborations between these outposts and Chinese PSCs could potentially extend to capturing fugitives as part of China's global anti-crime initiatives.
Lastly, it's worth noting that many China-based security company employees have backgrounds in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) or other security services. Companies offering surveillance systems contribute to the proliferation of Chinese digital infrastructures, raising privacy concerns due to China's 2017 National Intelligence Law.
As China's global presence and its corresponding need for protection continue to rise, the role and impact of Chinese PSCs warrant more scrutiny. These companies are a crucial part of China's overseas operations and their regulation is key to the safety and sovereignty of host countries.