Brief: Mystery Surrounds Killings of Chinese Nationals in Central African Republic
Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 8
As China has expanded its economic influence in Africa, its expatriates have often become targets of terrorist and militant attacks—and occasionally worker revolts. However, China’s lack of colonial history in Africa, non-engagement in unpopular counter-terrorism operations, and the perception that China is less wealthy than the West have collectively meant that Chinese citizens are less likely to be targeted in retaliation for Chinese political actions or based on anti-Chinese sentiment. Nevertheless, the inevitability that Chinese expatriates will be caught in the crossfire in African conflicts was demonstrated on March 19, when nine Chinese gold mining employees were killed in an attack in the Central African Republic (CAR) (rfi.fr, March 20).
The two main narratives of the CAR attack differ in that one claims that the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC) was responsible for the killings, while the other claims that Russia’s Wagner Group conducted the attack (miningtechnology.com, March 20). Both deny any involvement, and in the absence of any clear evidence, neither organization can categorically be blamed for the attack. The CPC had been particularly active in the weeks before the attack, launching a raid on a Central African Armed Forces (FACA) base in Sikikédé in early March, which left several soldiers dead. The assault on the base was subsequently condemned by the United Nations (ohchr.org, March 1).
The CPC was formerly led by the since-ousted CAR leader François Bozizé in 2020, who attempted to capture Bangui, the capital of the CAR in 2021. Bozizé tried to do so to prevent the elections that would eventually seal his fate, removing him from office and ensuring that he would not reemerge as the country’s leader. Following its failure to do so, the CPC has been a rebel group on the run (rfi.fr, January 14, 2021). It is also possible that the CPC conducted the attack on the Chinese mining employees for reasons of expediency rather than ideology, given that the CPC’s other attacks have occurred in the northeastern part of the country, where the Chinese miners of the Chimbolo gold mine were located.
Notionally, Russian relations with China are seemingly as strong as ever, as evidenced by Xi Jinping’s state visit to Moscow on March 20. As such, it seems unlikely that Russia would direct Wagner to kill Chinese expatriates. It is possible that Wagner fighters murdered the Chinese nationals for their own reasons, financial or otherwise. That being said, if the killings were carried out by Wagner fighters, they may have simply been a mistake (fmprc.com, March 21). For example, in May 2021, the Wagner Group supported the CAR’s government to oust a group of rebels from the country, but they chased the rebels into Chad and killed several Chadian soldiers (rfi.fr, May 31, 2021). This highlights key command-and-control issues that Wagner faces while operating in remote parts of the CAR, which could have led to the Chinese expatriates’ deaths.
As recently as January, the Wagner Group had fought with the CPC in mineral-rich areas of the CAR; several fighters on either side were killed in the skirmish (adfmagazine.com, February 21). It is, therefore, plausible that the Chinese expatriates were caught in the crossfire in another clash between Wagner and the CPC. That being said, given the remoteness, insecurity, and underdevelopment of the CAR’s rural areas, it is unlikely that any comprehensive evaluation of what occurred will take place.
From the Chinese perspective, the incident has been serious enough to merit a comment from Xi Jinping, who urged the CAR’s government to prevent these types of attacks and conduct an investigation and “severely punish” those who are found to be at fault (scmp.com, March 20). Regardless of what the investigation concludes, the incident will only add more ammunition to Chinese voices at home and abroad which call for the PRC to further develop its own private mercenary force to defend its citizens in Africa (globaltimes.cn, March 20). China already conducts similar counter-piracy patrols in Southeast Asia’s Mekong River region, and the PRC is sufficiently popular in the CAR that the population there may tolerate a greater Chinese military presence in the country for this purpose (chinadaily.com, January 16; Twitter.com/@RepublicPaper, March 23).