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Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, shakes hands with Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Bruno Tshibala Nzenze, at The Great Hall of People in Beijing on Sept. 6, 2018. A wave of Chinese emigration and investment across Africa, encouraged by Beijing, is only increasing under the Belt and Road Initiative.POOL/Getty Images

It was the dead of night as 12 men approached a Chinese mining compound near the city of Likasi. Just after 2:30, they cut a hole in the wire fence and slipped through, carrying AK-47s and metal pipes. Once inside, they moved swiftly through the camp to the security office, where they overpowered and tied up the guards.

The camp was in the heart of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s copper and cobalt industry, but instead of stealing precious minerals, the gang grabbed computers, cellphones, and around $18,500 in cash, according to a report by the local Chinese Enterprises Association shared with The Globe and Mail. By the time local police arrived to help, the robbers had already escaped with their loot.

He Hongwei, a spokesman for the Lualaba Chamber of Commerce, which represents dozens of Chinese businesses in the southern DRC, said the situation in the country increasingly “feels very dangerous.”

“The number of crimes is definitely on the rise,” he added.

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Thousands of Chinese workers live in the DRC, mainly in the mineral-rich east and south, part of a wave of emigration and investment across Africa encouraged by Beijing that is only increasing under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), President Xi Jinping’s vast trade and infrastructure project.

But with that increased presence overseas comes greater risk, particularly in developing countries, where Chinese citizens may be attractive targets for robberies and kidnapping. Along parts of the BRI, which spans much of Africa and Central Asia, there is also a growing risk of terrorism.

This raises questions over China’s ability to protect its citizens overseas, with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) maintaining a small footprint outside of East Asia and Beijing wary of anything that smacks of intervention.

To plug the gap, companies and groups like Mr. He’s have taken to hiring Chinese private security companies (PSCs) largely staffed and run by former members of the Chinese military and police.

Companies such as Britain’s G4S, which employs 800,000 people and has revenues in the billions, have long provided security for companies operating in dangerous environments. Companies must often navigate a web of regulations to operate, particularly in Africa, which has a long history of mercenary-fuelled conflict.

PSCs, both small and large, typically focus on providing threat assessments and logistics, subcontracting local nationals to work as armed guards or working with local police and military where necessary.

“Efficient private security is not having a lot of people armed, of course you need that, but it’s the last part of the solution, you need local intelligence, knowledge,” said Alessandro Arduino, a principal research fellow at the Middle East Institute of the National University of Singapore.

“Chinese companies often lack an understanding of local culture, which can create its own security problems.”

In a recent report, Paul Nantulya, a research associate at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, wrote that PSCs “offer the Chinese government tools it can wield to demonstrate its commitment to protecting overseas interests, while at the same time resisting pressure to deploy the PLA more robustly.”

Mr. Nantulya says there are 20 Chinese PSCs currently licensed to operate overseas, which employ around 3,200 people. This is greater than the total number of PLA peacekeeping troops deployed overseas, mainly in Africa, according to the Chinese foreign ministry. Since 2015, Chinese companies have spent more than US$10-billion on security annually, a number that is only increasing as more and more companies expand internationally, particularly along the BRI.

All PSCs and private military contractors “are a revolving door between military, police and intelligence,” said Mr. Arduino. However, when it comes to Chinese PSCs, the relationship is particularly close. This is true both in the nature of who owns and staffs the companies, and their biggest clients, almost all of whom are state-run enterprises (SOEs). The Hong Kong-listed Frontier Services Group (FSG), one of the largest Chinese players in Africa, is wholly owned by CITIC Group, the Chinese state-run investment company.

But while Chinese PSCs have the support of the state, they remain a sensitive topic politically, something that was evident in the reporting of this article. The Globe contacted almost a dozen Chinese PSCs which operate overseas, none of which would agree to an interview.

One representative said that “I would have talked to you immediately if you were Chinese media,” but said an interview with a foreign reporter would have to be cleared by his superiors. They eventually chose not to comment.

This could be because of what Helena Legarda, a senior analyst at the Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies (Merics), describes as the “interests of Chinese SOEs operating overseas [clashing] with the interests of the Chinese Communist Party.”

“Blackwater comes up a lot in Chinese writing on the issue of [PSCs] as an example of what not to do,” she said, referring to the Nisour Square massacre of 2007, when employees of the U.S. military contractor Blackwater fired on a crowd while escorting a U.S. embassy convoy in Iraq, killing 17 civilians.

The incident was devastating both for Blackwater’s reputation (the company has since rebranded twice) and for U.S.-Iraqi relations, sparking widespread condemnation and retaliatory attacks.

Disasters have still taken place involving Chinese security companies. In 2018, two Chinese guards were jailed in Zimbabwe for shooting and injuring the son of a lawmaker. That same year, authorities in Kenya arrested five Chinese nationals found in “possession of military equipment” deemed to be a threat to national security, according to local media.

The Chinese industry is far younger than its international rivals, and also draws on a shallower pool of veterans, particularly those with foreign combat experience. The lack of experience and sophistication within the industry creates a problem, especially as Chinese overseas increasingly “fall into the same high threat category as their U.S., Israeli and European counterparts,” Mr. Arduino wrote in a recent report.

“Chinese businessman in Africa are at an increased risk of kidnapping, they have a huge target on their backs,” he told The Globe. “There is this perception that every Chinese is a billionaire.”

Ordinary Chinese workers are often far better off than the average resident of the countries they operate in. Just this year, two Chinese gold miners were kidnapped in Nigeria, with their captors demanding $30,000 for their release.

Mr. He, the chamber of commerce representative, said there was a sense of impunity among many criminals. “They feel the Chinese can do nothing about them,” he said. “I think the reason for the insecurity does not come from the lack of protection, but from the fact that we ourselves do not have the right to shoot. It is difficult to have a great deterrent effect on the bandits, and the local police will at most scare them and let them go.”

His frustration spoke to a growing disconnect between how the Chinese government and its citizens overseas perceive the situation and Beijing’s obligations, one that could eventually force a rethink in how China approaches security overseas.

“It’s a huge problem and one that all Chinese private security companies talk about,” said Mr. Arduino. “There’s a perception among many people in China that as soon as you wave the Chinese flag, people stop shooting, or they think they can just pick up the phone and the embassy will come save them.”

Nonetheless, Beijing has heavily promoted its ability to protect Chinese overseas. A hugely popular propaganda film, Wolf Warrior II, ends with a picture of a Chinese passport and the text “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China. When you encounter danger in a foreign land, do not give up! Please remember, at your back stands a strong motherland.”

The contradiction is acute enough when Chinese citizens are targeted by criminals, but this could be a major problem for Beijing if there is some terrorist incident in the future, said Ms. Legarda.

“China and Chinese citizens have not previously been the targets of terrorism overseas,” she said. “What happens domestically in China in terms of public opinion if we do start seeing such attacks and Beijing doesn’t act?”

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