Stranger danger

By Zhang Zhilong Source:Global Times Published: 2012-6-18 20:50:02

Prospectors with China’s Zhongyuan Oilfield prospecting company work on the Nile in Egypt. Photo: CFP

In a Beijing suburb, former commandos are preparing for the cities and jungles of Africa. The Alfa-Angel (Beijing) Co., a security consultancy, is training 130 security officers, mostly retired soldiers, to prepare to work overseas.

As China's enterprises try to grasp new markets overseas, Chinese workers have become increasingly tempting targets for rebel forces, terrorists and local militias. For new international firms, protecting both their workers and their business interests has suddenly become an urgent necessity.

According to Alfa-Angel's website, it is the first such firm in China to cooperate with security experts from Israel, among the world's finest. Adi Talmor, a former paratrooper with the Israeli Defense Forces, is one of them.

Adi told his trainees that many hold that it is enough to dispatch bodyguards in black and wearing sunglasses for overseas security, but sunglasses don't frighten terrorists and the guards need all-round knowledge, according to a report in Phoenix Weekly.

The candidates are former members of China's Marine Corps, the Snow Leopard Commando Unit, an elite anti-terrorist force, and the Special Forces of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. According to the report, they all went through rigid selection before beginning training last October.

They will be the first batch of overseas security officials to receive professional training, and will provide security for the overseas branches of Chinese enterprises.

China's security enterprises are trying to get a share in the international market, but have had little luck of yet. Shandong Huawei Security Group established its "overseas service center" in Beijing in October 2010, and they cautiously explained to Phoenix Weekly that the program is still under preparation.

One source with Alfa-Angel, unwilling to give his name, told the Global Times that they have to keep low-profile partly because of political reasons, and partly because they are still hesitating whether to brand the trainees as security officers or security consultants.

"Security consultants are the ideal we want and are needed in the market thanks to the demand for security services, but not every retired soldier can make it as a consultant, and it takes time, usually more than two years, to train them," he said. But he admitted that this wasn't cutting into the firm's profits, thanks to the huge market demand.

Urgent risk

Twenty-five Chinese workers were trapped in Egypt in late January, after being kidnapped on their way back to a construction site for a cement park sponsored by the China National Materials Group Corporation Ltd. (SINOMA), reported the Beijing News.

The kidnapping was conducted on the Sinai Peninsula by Bedouin tribesmen, who used Chinese workers as hostages to demand the Egyptian government release prisoners from the tribe, according to the report.

Fortunately, all the workers were freed 16 hours after the abduction, reported the Xinhua News Agency in early February. But back in October 2008, Chinese workers in Sudan were not that fortunate, after nine were kidnapped by a local rebel group. Only four of the kidnapped workers were rescued, while the rest five were shot dead after negotiations between the local government and the kidnappers failed. The nine workers all work for the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC). Since then, CNPC has strengthened its anti-terrorist training for overseas workers.

Fourteen Chinese workers taken hostage by Sudanese rebels are released in Khartoum, Sudan, on January 30, 2012. The remaining 15 hostages were later freed by Sudanese troops. 
Photo: CFP
Fourteen Chinese workers taken hostage by Sudanese rebels are released in Khartoum, Sudan, on January 30, 2012. The remaining 15 hostages were later freed by Sudanese troops. Photo: CFP

During the past five years, over 100 Chinese have been attacked or kidnapped in more than 10 countries, such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, Nigeria and Columbia. Chinese entrepreneurs are doing business in about 180 countries and regions, and over 800,000 workers are working abroad at present.

However, Chinese enterprises are moving into troubled areas because comparatively safer places have been "occupied" by Western enterprises, according to Stolte Gordon, a scholar on global security issues with the Royal Institute of International Relations in London.

He said that during the past 10 years, Western enterprises have gradually exited countries where civil wars can possibly break out or political situation is not stable.

The origin of the workers doesn't particularly matter. Instead enterprises that the local government cares about usually become easy targets, according to Gordon.

Gordon's opinion is shared by He Wenping, an expert on African studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, who told the Global Times that firms have to face up to reality. She said there are no absolutely safe or dangerous places, and the speed of Chinese enterprises going global won't slow down, anyway.

"Policies should be improved, enterprises need to invest more in security, and individuals should have safety awareness," said He.

Overseas security risks have been an obstacle for Chinese enterprises going global, including casualties caused by terrorist attacks and social unrest, accidents, natural disasters, serious infectious diseases and emergencies caused due to the enterprises' negligence of security factors, according to the International Contractors Association.

Not easy job

Currently, some retired local special force soldiers are hired and are expected to replace Western security soldiers, but they lack the needed skills at present, said the Alfa-Angel source.

"Energy industry is not just business, but part of politics in any country, thus a security officer needs to know about various political powers in the country and to be able to predict what is going to happen there," said the man.

In Nigeria, he said, some Chinese companies contracted projects at lower pay than Indian or Brazilian companies charged because they didn't understand the local situation well and underestimated the necessary security costs. Finally, they found they were spending too much on security to make a profit.

Guns are sometimes necessary for security guards in countries like Afghanistan, but untrained security workers couldn't be trusted with guns. "They cannot tell the difference between Afghan citizens and al-Qaeda terrorists," said the source.

His concern is echoed by Xu Peitao, general manager of SINOMA Tianjin, which the 25 workers kidnapped in Egypt worked for.

"When Chinese guards are abroad, how can you equip them with guns?" questioned Xu, adding that he doesn't think it feasible in most countries.

"Most times we hire local security guards, especially in unsafe places, and I don't think local guards cost more than Chinese security guards," said Xu, adding that they only hire a few Chinese guards at their construction sites.

Guards not enough

How many Chinese workers are sent abroad depends on what kind of projects they are working on, said Xu.

At present SINOMA has more than 20 projects in 20 countries and regions, and they are hiring 500 Chinese workers because they need to urgently finish some projects, according to Xu. They hired about 5,000 Chinese workers to work abroad from 2008 to 2009, their largest number yet.

Xu said his company has begun to hire as many local people as possible since 2009. As in Egypt, they once hired 1,600 workers for a project, almost all of them Egyptians. Experts have agreed that localization is the way forward for Chinese firms.

"We not only hire local workers, but also join in local celebrations, and we also funded the building of primary school," said Xu, adding that during festivals they give cattle and sheep as presents, following the local customs.

He Wenping said budgets should include security factors and employees should receive security training before working abroad. "The workers should learn some of the local language. In case they are kidnapped, they can communicate with the locals," she said.

She proposed every party should take their responsibilities of guaranteeing the safety of enterprises' assets and workers.

Security risk is one of the risks Chinese enterprises are facing. Others include economic risks and law or policy risks, said Xing Houyuan, vice president with Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation, Ministry of Commerce.

Some countries are still experiencing fallout from the 2008 economic crisis, and the public there have strong demands on the government. And since some Chinese firms and staff have a poor awareness of security, they make tempting targets for disgruntled locals, said Xing.

Xing stated that long-term prediction and assessment should be done, rather than just focusing on short-term risks. She slammed some firms for assuming that nothing would happen to them.

"Some enterprises have very limited means of competing with international counterparts, and can only rely on price advantage, which means security costs have to be cut," said Xing.

Overseas service provided by Chinese security companies do help overseas enterprises, said Xing. She added that cultural differences should be noticed and born in mind.

"The Chinese government should be informed and communications should be established with the host country," said Xing, adding that good relations with the local government should be maintained, and local laws should be understood.

"We should care about local people's lives, and mutual development should be encouraged," said Xing, adding that more local people should be hired. Building such connections, in her view, substantially cuts down on risk.

"The real safety is not isolation, but integration," said Xing, noting that enterprises should be open-minded, integrated into local society, and engaged with grass-roots organizations.


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