Assessing China’s Response Options to Kidnappings Abroad

Publication: China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 10

Members of the Snow Leopard Commando Unit

In late April 2012, South Sudanese President Salva Kiir Mayardit visited China and met with a number of top officials, including Chinese President Hu Jintao. After these meetings, China offered South Sudan $8 billion in development funding, along with an important message from Vice Premier Li Keqiang: ensuring the security of employees of Chinese companies and their properties is an essential step in bringing further investment to the country (Xinhua, April 25). This has become an increasingly common message from Beijing to African nations as Chinese personnel in Africa have begun to face greater threats. From the beginning of 2007 until February 2012, Chinese citizens were involved in at least 14 separate kidnapping incidents that led to 15 deaths (China Daily, February 22; February 16; Global Times, February 1). The rise in kidnappings involving Chinese, including a recent case, which involved the capture of 29 Chinese workers in Sudan, has brought to the fore concerns about China’s ability to protect its citizens overseas. The default policy response has been to try and forge better relationships with local police forces around Africa and better educate Chinese workers abroad on the threats to their safety. The increasing rate of kidnappings, however, suggests this route alone is insufficient.

China has two primary means to independently respond to kidnappings abroad: People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Special Forces and private security firms. For these options to be viable they must have both the capability and the will to use force in overseas operations. Unfortunately for China, neither option fully meets these criteria. PLA Special Forces seem both capable and willing to conduct some kidnapping response missions, but are limited to sea-based contingencies in a contained area—not operations that may take them deep into foreign territory. Chinese private security firms, on the other hand, lack both the capability and will to engage in overseas kidnapping response operations and face a number of barriers before these become a realistic option. For now, China will be forced to increase diplomatically and economically its efforts to induce an increased commitment by local security forces to protect Chinese citizens in their county.

Chinese Special Forces

China’s Special Forces were founded in the 1980s and are one of the newest branches of the PLA (China Daily, September 8, 2009). Since their inception, the Special Forces have developed into a respectable institution, even outperforming Western counterparts in Special Forces competitions. At the 14th Annual International Military Competition held in 2009, a Chinese Special Operations unit from the Jinan Military Area Command ranked first both in the number of gold medals and the total number of medals presented in individual competitions, beating out U.S. and UK competitors and setting six new records (PLA Daily, February 23, 2010; July 8, 2009). To reach this level of performance, PLA Special Forces go through rigorous all-weather, all-terrain training to develop physical and mental strength.

In an article for the PLA Daily, Wang Junxian, commander of a Special Forces group known as “Sirius,” described his training routine that includes winter survival missions lasting ten days in which troops must carry more than 75 pounds on their backs for nearly 50 miles a day. With only three hot meals provided for the entire length of the mission, the men find their own food and do things like cook congee using the foraged seeds of camel thorns. At night, when temperatures can reach -20 degrees Celsius, they either pitch a one-man tent and sleep in an open snowfield or, on occasion, are forced to march an extra 25 miles. Wang has also led groups into the Kunlun Mountains for over 100 days where they eat wild vegetables and test more than 100 pieces of light and heavy weaponry. Aside from these more grueling missions, each Special Operations member must be able to parachute jump, fire live ammunition, conduct demolition blasting and master “at least one set of special skills” (PLA Daily, April 10).

Chinese Special Forces also train extensively in contingencies that would support an overseas hostage rescue. For example, multiple exercises have taken place in the Gulf of Aden, simulating anti-piracy operations that, in a real-life scenario, could involve hostage rescue. In February 2012, the destroyer Haikou and the depot ship QinghaiLake of the 10th Chinese naval escort taskforce conducted a live-fire exercise for its Special Operations sailors. The focus of this training included moving-target shooting, long-range blocking and attacking, barrage firing and shooting by skiff as well as disguised approaching, quick boarding and other maritime rescue tactics (PLA Daily, February 7). Such skills would be critical for situations in which the PLA was asked to respond to a ship crew kidnapped by pirates and suggests China is aiming to be prepared for just such missions.   

In fact, Special Forces are already active in broader anti-piracy and escort missions in the Gulf of Aden, reflecting an implicit willingness at the political and operational level to intervene if Chinese goods and citizens in transit are threatened. According to Chinese sources, from the time of its first operation in the Gulf of Aden in December 2008 until the end of 2011, the PLA Navy conducted nearly 400 missions along the Gulf of Aden, escorting 4,379 Chinese and foreign ships through dangerous areas, including helping 50 ships that had been attacked or come into contact with pirates. Over 700 Special Operations Forces participated in these missions and seem to play an essential role in response missions (CNTV, December 27, 2011). For example, on a single day in April 2010, Special Forces soldiers from China’s 5th escort flotilla boarded four separate merchant ships to ensure their safe passage and deter pirates (Xinhua, April 11, 2010).

China’s domestic security force, the People’s Armed Police, also has special operations groups that, although more analogous to SWAT teams, could provide training and know-how for foreign operations. For example, a group known as the Snow Leopard Commando Unit, which specializes in counterterrorism operations, has engaged in training with Russian forces, was in charge of protecting the 2008 Olympics from terrorist attacks and has been sent at least once to Xinjiang in response to local attacks. Unbiased analysis of their performance is unavailable, but given the significance of their assigned missions, there is reason to believe they are trusted by China’s leaders (China Daily, August 13, 2011). They also seemed to have captured the attention of the wider Chinese populace; one blog post re-posted in a Global Times article called by name for the Snow Leopards to be sent to Sudan to rescue a group of 29 kidnapped Chinese.

Taken together, the training scenarios and active response missions already underway suggest PLA Special Forces have both the means and will to respond to kidnappings—at least at sea. The main limitation of this response option is that PLA Special Forces show no inclination to conduct land operations inside a foreign country. Indeed, the escort taskforces in place are not equipped to take on such missions, lacking sufficient air lift capacity and manpower, and are severely limited in their inland reach. Furthermore, the political blowback, both at home and abroad, that could be caused by China conducting a military operation inside foreign borders could be enough to give its political leaders serious pause—an issue discussed more below. Therefore, unless responding to vessels overcome by pirates near the Gulf of Aden, PLA Special Forces are not yet a realistic option for responding to the hostage rescue problem currently facing Beijing.

China’s Private Security Firms

Private security firms are not new to China, though the idea of operating outside Chinese borders has been broached only recently. Many, if not most, Chinese companies operating overseas in Africa and elsewhere have hired local security. Firsthand accounts however suggest these guards are not reliable enough to trust in a crisis situation and, according to one Chinese worker in Tanzania, local guards have trouble stopping even petty thefts. (China Daily, February 22). As kidnappings have increased and local security forces have proven to be inefficient, contracted security firms have become part of the discourse on how to protect Chinese citizens abroad. Private security personnel would serve primarily to deter would-be kidnappers, but since these forces would be the closest responsible party under Chinese direction able to respond to active kidnappings, they could conceivably be called on for quick-response operations. Unfortunately, both the capability and will of Chinese private security firms currently are found wanting and face significant barriers before becoming a viable option.

The main barrier to success is that there are currently no Chinese security firms with significant overseas experience. The Manager of the Overseas Affairs Branch of the Beijing General Security Service Fu Shen has said there are few companies in China that offer overseas security and that Chinese guards “are far from the level of private security contractors like Academi [formerly known as Xe Services LLC and Blackwater USA] in the [United States].” Indeed, Chinese companies have themselves acknowledged that they are far from prepared for overseas operations (China Daily, February 22). According to one analysis, Shandong Huawei Security Group seems to be one of the only companies looking to break into the international security business, and it is targeting Iraq, not Africa, where kidnappings of Chinese are most prevalent (The Diplomat, February 21).

Deputy Director of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the CPPCC Han Fangming has urged Chinese security firms to expand their presence outside of China and learn from their international counterparts (Global Times, March 12). His critics, however, have pointed out that there are a number of barriers facing companies interested in overseas security. Deputy Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun has cited legal issues involved with overseas security firms and highlighted controversial incidents involving U.S. firms in Iraq and Afghanistan to argue security issues should be resolved through government-to-government negotiations (China Daily, March 3). Echoing these sentiments, Feng Xia, an international law professor at China University of Political Science and Law, has said that local police and embassies are responsible for the safety of Chinese citizens abroad and that “[b]ased on international law, it is inappropriate to send security guards overseas because that shows a lack of trust in the other country’s own security capacity” (China Daily, February 22).

Although not legally binding, another aspect of China’s use of private security firms is that it has agreed to the “Montreux Document on Pertinent International Legal Obligations and Good Practices for States related to Operations of Private Military and Security Companies during Armed Conflict” [1]. This document sets forth a number of best practices for sending private security firms overseas, including agreements to properly vet companies, ensure transparency and supervision in selecting contractors, and to respond with appropriate legal measures for contractors that break international and national laws. Given the lack of private Chinese security firms operating overseas, there is little way for China to properly vet how their companies will conduct business abroad by doing things like obtaining “references from clients for whom the PMSC [private military security company] has previously provided similar services to…” As with all signatories, there also is a degree of political risk in hiring contractors because the conduct of security firms abroad are attributable to the contracting state, in this case China, who “then must assume responsibility for any wrongdoing on the part of the” contractor. U.S. firms in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown that incidents involving contractor misconduct are not uncommon—a point surely not lost on Beijing.  

Other Limitations

There are still a number of other limitations facing China’s response operations abroad, including international law and potential violations of sovereignty that could stem from China using force in a foreign country. Perhaps most difficult for China to overcome, though, would be its own aversion to getting embroiled in actions directly counter to its stated foreign policy. Three of the main principles of China’s foreign policy are mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, and non-interference in internal affairs—all of which could be violated if China took kidnapping response into its own hands. This policy stems from its own history of having Western powers invade to quell the Boxer Rebellion and defend colonial interests and, thus, has a strong historical underpinning that would be difficult to overcome. Furthermore, reiterating this policy in January 2012, Chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference Jia Qinglin gave a speech at the African Union summit in which he said: “Interference in Africa’s internal affairs by outside forces out of selfish motives can only complicate the efforts to resolve issues in Africa” (Xinhua, January 29).


Although the current practice of relying on host country forces to protect Chinese workers has not been promising, this will remain the primary option moving forward as China grapples with the operational and political limits on its ability to respond to kidnappings in Africa and elsewhere. China’s government or Chinese corporations operating in Africa could look to contract foreign-based security firms with greater capability and experience to serve as an interim response, though it may implicitly show a level of weakness on China’s part.

What will likely change in the near-term is China’s direct contribution to local police and domestic security forces. China has provided billions of dollars in economic assistance and infrastructure development across the developing world, sometimes with the explicit message to protect Chinese citizens, as it just did with South Sudan. Few reports however suggest there has been noteworthy funding earmarked directly for police or non-military security forces with the intention of creating a safer environment for Chinese workers. Funding, loans and other contributions from Beijing meant to enhance domestic security forces in some countries (or at the very least buy the favor of political leaders) will surely increase, as will expectations of these countries’ dedication to the safety of Chinese citizens. It is difficult to know how long it will take for China to overcome the barriers on its independent options, but, if kidnappings continue to occur, there will be growing pressure to work quickly through a variety of constraints currently holding Beijing back.


1.     Text of the Montreux Document is available online,