johannesburg, south africa - The killing of nine Chinese gold mine workers in conflict-ridden Central African Republic this month highlighted the risks some Belt and Road development projects face in volatile areas.
To protect Chinese investments and citizens, Beijing deploys its own private security contractors, but analysts say these companies operate very differently on the continent than Russia's notorious Wagner Group.
President Xi Jinping called for those responsible for the March 19 attack by gunmen on a Chinese-run gold mine outside Bambari to be "severely punished," while the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a security alert for its citizens.
"The foreign ministry will continue to work closely with other government agencies concerned and subnational governments to do everything possible to protect the safety and security of Chinese nationals and companies in Africa," ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters after the incident.
With thousands of Chinese working in Africa since Xi's infrastructure-building push began in 2013, their security and the protection of assets like mines and natural gas projects - as well as railways and shipping routes - have become a key concern for Beijing, said Jasmine Opperman, an independent security consultant based in South Africa.
Chinese workers in Africa also are increasingly targeted by criminal gangs for kidnapping.
All these threats have led to a rise in the number of private military companies (PMCs) or private security companies (PSCs) operating on the continent.
"On China PMCs we have to go back to the Belt and Road Initiative,' Opperman told VOA. 'We have seen a massive deployment of workers, Chinese workers, more specifically infrastructure. Now these investments, like in Sudan, South Sudan, are really in volatile areas, so we have seen a proliferation of Chinese PMCs on the African continent, with a task to protect employees and the infrastructure projects."
Incidents like the one in CAR could now result in more Chinese security companies deployed.
"It's about the protection and expansion of Chinese influence, and because of the volatile security situations, we are seeing these PMCs now growing in numbers," said Opperman.
Different than Wagner?
But analysts stress there is a huge difference between Chinese security firms and companies like Wagner Group - which the U.S. Treasury this year designated a "transnational criminal organization" - or even disgraced and disbanded U.S. company Blackwater, which committed abuses during the Iraq war.
Wagner Group, which has close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin, has been in the news recently because of the group's deployment of tens of thousands of mercenaries to fight in the war in Ukraine. But it's long been operating in destabilized countries in Africa, including CAR and Mali.
Paul Nantulya, a China expert at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, told VOA that Chinese private security companies are not really private at all.
"Ninety-nine percent of security contractors in China are ex-People's Liberation Army and also ex-special forces and ex-paramilitary police. There's a level of control, the laws in China are very clear, that the state must have a holding interest in all security firms," he said.
Nantulya's previous research on the topic found that of the 5,000 security firms registered in China, 20 were licensed to operate overseas and reported that they employed 3,200 individual contractors. However, he said he thought the true number was much higher.
Among the companies working on the continent are Beijing DeWe Security Service, Huaxin Zhong An Security Group and China Security Technology Group. In Kenya, DeWe employs around 2,000 security contractors just to protect the $3.6 billion China-built Standard Gauge Railway, according to his study.
However, Nantulya told VOA that Chinese companies "work very, very differently from Russian ones like Wagner. Wagner is engaged in combat operations. It's engaged in wars; it supplies a national security adviser in, for instance, the Central African Republic. They become part of the governing architecture. They fight wars on behalf of governments."
FILE - Chinese private secuity guards take part in a 7,000-strong annual parade in the southern city of Shenzhen, Aug. 20, 2001. Private security companies are growing significantly in China.
The U.S. government said Wagner has "meddled and destabilized countries in Africa, committing widespread human rights abuses and extorting natural resources from their people. ... Wagner personnel have engaged in an ongoing pattern of serious criminal activity, including mass executions, rape, child abductions and physical abuse in the Central African Republic and Mali."
Asked by VOA whether the U.S. has any concerns about Chinese security contractors operating in Africa, a State Department spokesperson replied: "We respect the ability of countries to decide for themselves whether to partner with the PRC. However, we echo the long-standing calls from African capitals that the PRC must respect host country laws and international obligations."
Nantulya noted that most Chinese security contractors - except for those involved in maritime escort missions intended to protect against pirates - are strictly controlled and aren't even allowed to be armed.
"The Chinese, it's a small footprint. According to Chinese law, Chinese contractors are not allowed to go into operations with weapons, so they have to work very closely with host nation security forces. They do a lot of training, they do a lot of capacity building, they supply equipment, they supply intelligence, they supply surveillance and so on," he said.
Opperman said the Chinese security contractors could still have a destabilizing effect.
"Though PMCs from China are not allowed to carry weapons, what they are doing is collaborating through private or local security companies or even local militia groups in terms of providing security ... by means of collaborating with local militias, you're basically taking sides."
In 2016, more than 300 Chinese oil workers were stranded amid heavy militia fighting in Juba, South Sudan. DeWe's unarmed personnel helped to evacuate the Chinese nationals by enlisting armed South Sudanese by enlisting armed South Sudanese as backup. Some of the South Sudanese government-backed militias used by Chinese companies have been accused of committing atrocities.
And there have been incidences of violence, despite the arms ban. In Zimbabwe, two Chinese security contractors were jailed in 2017 for shooting and wounding a politician's son, while in Zambia in 2018, two suspected Chinese security contractors were arrested for providing illegal training and military equipment to a local security firm.
The Chinese Mission to the African Union did not reply to a request for comment.