A company that counts former Blackwater CEO Erik Prince among its investors said it plans to build a “training center” in China’s far western region of Xinjiang, an area where the Chinese government is accused of carrying out a wide-ranging security clampdown targeting Muslim minority groups.
Frontier Services Group (FSG), a Hong Kong-based company which specializes in providing security, logistics and insurance for businesses operating in hostile environments, made the announcement in a Chinese-language news release posted to its website.
The release, which provided few details about the training center itself, detailed a handful of deals announced between local authorities and CITIC, a massive Chinese conglomerate that is the biggest stakeholder in FSG. The release has since been pulled from FSG’s homepage, though a cached version remains viewable.
A spokesperson for Prince and FSG told CNN that the former US Navy SEAL, who is the brother of US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, “had no knowledge or involvement whatsoever with this preliminary memorandum regarding the company’s activity in Xinjiang.”
“Any potential investment of this nature would require the knowledge and input of each FSG Board member and a formal Board resolution,” the spokesperson said.
FSG’s announcement comes amid international outcry about China’s treatment of ethnic and religious minorities in Xinjiang.
Xinjiang is home to the predominately Muslim Uyghurs, who are ethnically distinct from the country’s majority ethnic group, the Han Chinese. Uyghurs form the majority in Xinjiang, where they account for just under half of the total population.
The US State Department says Chinese authorities have indefinitely detained at least 800,000 Uyghurs and other minorities since April 2017 in what critics allege are internment camps. Former detainees have described how they were forced to take lessons in Communist Party propaganda and banned from partaking in Uyghur cultural activities and traditions.
China has repeatedly denied it is imprisoning or re-educating Uyghurs in Xinjiang, instead saying that it is undertaking voluntary vocational training as part of an anti-extremism program.
The region has taken on increased economic importance as part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road initiative, a massive series of infrastructure investments connecting Asian-Pacific economies and opening up new markets for Chinese goods.
In an interview published in Chinese state media in March 2017, Prince outlined FSG’s ambition to assist the Chinese government in advancing its new economic program into Central Asia. “Chinese companies have been leading the way in developing frontier markets in recent years. This will increase with China’s One Belt and One Road initiative and we look forward to supporting them,” said Prince.
Prince was replaced as chairman of the FSG board in December by Chang Zhenming, the chairman of CITIC, one of China’s biggest state-owned conglomerates. CITIC is the largest shareholder in FSG and increased its stake to more than 28% in March 2018. Prince remains listed on the FSG website as an executive director and deputy chairman.
Speaking to CNN in January 2017, Prince described FSG as “not Blackwater at all.”
“None of our men are armed. We do logistics, we deliver groceries – including frozen groceries – from Cape Town and Durban all the way up to through Democratic Republic of Congo. We do aviation out of Malta. And we’re the biggest medivac provider for the UN,” he said.
Prince is best known for founding Blackwater, a private US defense contractor that came under intense scrutiny and criticism for its actions in Iraq. Some of the firm’s contractors were involved in a 2007 shooting in Baghdad’s Nusoor Square at the height of the Iraq War, in which 14 unarmed civilians were killed.