Is Wagner group’s rebellion against Russia, a wakeup call for China?

In the rebellion against Moscow by the Wagner group, a Russia-based private military company, there is a lesson for the Chinese leadership as well, since it is equally encouraging private military groups in their efforts to expand and grow. Chinese private military companies (PMCs) have a major presence in mineral rich countries of Africa, Latin America and other parts of the world.

In fact, over the last few years, China’s investment and trade with African countries have seen a meteoric jump. Under the Belt and Road Initiative alone, China has made a huge investment in Zambia, Angola, Ethiopia, Egypt, Namibia, and several other African nations. Following Russia’s strategy in Africa, China has pushed a large number of PMCs in the continent to protect its interests and expand influence in the region.

As per media reports, more than 10,000 Chinese companies are working for different BRI projects in Africa. China also has several mines and natural gas projects in the continent. To man these projects, as per the US-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, more than 200,000 Chinese workers are involved.

Since security of these workers are a key concern for Beijing, a number of PMCs have been pushed by China into Africa to provide security to Chinese nationals and also to the country’s assets like oil and gas projects and mines in the continent.

According to the US-based Africa Centre for Strategic Studies, as many as 5,000 security firms are registered in China, employing more than 4.3 million security personnel. Of these security firms, as per the US-based think tank, 20 are licensed to operate overseas with 3,200 personnel. However, experts say the actual figure of security personnel could be very high and they could be between 8000 to 10,000.

Key Chinese private military companies operating in Africa include DeWe Security Service, Hua Xin Zhong An Security Group and China Security Technology Group. DeWe Security Service alone employs around 2,000 security contractors to protect the $3.6 billion standard gauge railway in Kenya, the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies said.

However, Germany’s Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, a Left-leaning organisation that promotes alternative concepts for social transformation in Germany and other corners of the world, has altogether a different story to tell about Chinese PMCs’ presence in Africa.

As per the Foundation, there are nine Chinese PMCs in more than 40 African countries which are managing day, today security of Chinese engineers and administrators engaged in infrastructure development in the continent under the ambitious BRI. It said DeWe Security Services has not just 2000 security-personal but more than 20,000 security personnel who are providing security to Chinese interests in countries like Kenya, Sudan, South Sudan, Mozambique, Senegal and Angola.

The Foundation further said that China Security Technology Group, which was formed in 2016 has 30,000 security personnel who provide armed protection, armed escorts and help in security assessment for China-led projects in the continent.

Another Chinese security firm, Hua Xin Zhong An (Beijing) Security has 21,000 security personnel manning BRI projects in Ethiopia, Kenya and other African countries, while China Overseas Security Group has 20,000 well trained security personnel to guard China-led projects in all BRI zones of Africa.

Similarly, firms like Genghis Security Advisor, VSS Security, Shandong Huawei Security Group, Zhongjun Junhong Security Service Co have their security personnel to protect and guard China-led oil and gas companies, rail, road and port projects in different parts of Africa.

As per Beijing-based China Overseas Security and Defence Research Centre, Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) spend around $10 billion annually on security of Chinese interests in Africa and other parts of the world. Such moves have, nonetheless, offered Beijing a pretext for greater interference in Africa through its retired PLA personnel, working as private security contractors.

Russia’s Wagner Group which launched an unsuccessful mutiny against the country’s leadership, has equally played a key role in expanding Russia’s footprint in West Asia and Africa. Analysts say there is a difference in the working style of Chinese PMCs and Russia’s Wagner Group. According to Rand Corporation, a US-based non-partisan nonprofit global policy think-tank and research institute, Chinese PMCs have focussed “narrowly on protecting Chinese investments around the world”, such as providing security to Chinese-funded projects or Chinese embassies and installations.

In contrast, the Wagner Group has been accused by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights of engaging in “grave human rights and international humanitarian law violations, including arbitrary detention, torture, disappearance, and execution.

Yevgeny Prigozhin-led Wagner Group’s growth in power and influence enhanced over the years since its establishment in 2014 due to Kremlin’s active support. It fought alongside Russian troops in Ukraine. But it turned ferociously against its own country and reportedly took over the regional military command and seized military facilities in Voronezh and other Russian cities on the slightest pretext of ill treatment to Wagner forces by the Russian military.

Wagner’s head, Yevgeny Prigozhin’s frustration was that top generals of the Russian army left Wagner fighters to die in Ukraine by starving them of ammunition and other supplies. It is said that given Prigozhin’s proximity with Vladimir Putin and top officials of the Kremlin, he could have directly raised his concerns with the Russian President instead of launching armed rebellion against the Russian government. But then he preferred to show strength against his friend and master, reminding the world of the popular idiom ‘genie is out of the bottle.’

The development has nonetheless served as a wakeup call for China, especially the CPC leadership as it has leaned on PMCs for its activities in Africa and other parts of the world. These PMCs, drawing their manpower from China’s People’s Liberation Army, have been at times also used for dealing with local
strikes by the ruling establishment in the country. Although these Chinese PMCs may not be as ruthless and ambitious as the Wagner Group, they can equally be a destabilising force, especially when China is not in good economic health and unemployment among youth has hit new records.