As China's wealth grow in numbers, so do their protectors

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 8, 2010; 7:09 PM

BEIJING - Perhaps the most visible sign of the explosion of private wealth in China tries hard not to be visible at all - the private bodyguard.

They work as drivers or nannies, or blend into a businessman's coterie looking like a secretary, a briefcase carrier or a toady. Unlike bodyguards in the United States, they are generally not tall and imposing; in fact, many are women, on the theory that females in the retinue attract less attention.

And also unlike in the United States, they are never armed, since private citizens in China are largely prohibited from owning firearms. Rather, Chinese bodyguards are martial arts experts, trained to disarm or subdue an attacker with a few quick thrusts, jabs and hand chops.

"In China, we don't need people who know guns," said Michael Zhe, president of Beijing VSS Security Consulting Ltd, which started in 2002 and counts itself as the country's oldest private security firm. "Bodyguards can use one or two blows to stop an attacker."

When Zhe, a national-level kung fu coach and former government security agent, started his company eight years ago, aiming to serve a high-end, wealthy clientele, he recalls there were few if any competitors in the game. By the end of last year, according to the Ministry of Public Security, the private security business had grown into a $1.2 billion industry with about 2,767 companies employing more than two million security guards.

The burgeoning personal protection industry is a reflection of the dramatic growth in prosperity here that has created a new class of wealthy Chinese - but that has also exacerbated the already-wide chasm between the haves and have-nots.

As millions of Chinese have grown richer - and often indulge in the ostentatious trappings of new money - so, too, has the resentment increased from those left behind, threatening the ruling Communist Party's stated goal of maintaining social stability. There have been stories here of kidnappings of wealthy people, contract hits being ordered by disgruntled business associates, and increasing random acts of violence. China this year has been hit by a spate of vicious attacks on kindergarten and primary school children, which some psychologists have blamed on the economic dislocation.

"The booming of the security industry reflects the rich people's worry about the safety of their families and themselves," said Ni Shoubin, professor with the Shanghai Institute of Foreign Trade. "The population is disgusted by how these rich people are becoming rich, and all society has started to hate rich people. And the rich people must feel that resentment, and it makes them feel insecure."

Private bodyguards now do everything from protecting wealthy celebrities and businessmen to assisting in security for such major events as the Shanghai World Expo.

That rapid growth has prompted the Chinese government to start trying to rein in the industry. Up to now, the private security firms have operated in a legal "gray area," with no guidelines, regulations or standards - and with long-established security consultants such as Zhe fretting that many are fly-by-night outfits that could tarnish the entire industry.

In April, the State Council, China's equivalent of a cabinet, announced it would be drafting regulations to bring the freewheeling security industry under control. Zhe's company is helping local police bureaus draft regulations, set industry standards and draft a textbook for training private bodyguards.

China is still a relatively safe country. But violent crime is on the rise. A report by China's respected Academy of Social Sciences this year found a "dramatic increase" in violent crime, including homicides, robbery and rape in 2009 over the previous year, with prosecutors reporting 10 percent more cases. The report said crime was likely to rise again for 2010 because of factory closings and high unemployment.

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