Private Security Firms & China’s Growing Population of Super-Rich

2013-10-10 11:21 | The Economic Observer
By Li Rong (李容) and Zhang Hua (张华) | October 7, 2013  
As a Shaolin Temple disciple since childhood, Shi Xingfeng, president of Bojing Security Agency, often has to remind himself to hide the heroic spirit that often glows from the eyes of martial arts masters.

“It’s professional discipline,” Shi says. “You’ve got to learn to be an invisible bodyguard.”

As a matter of fact, the Chinese super-rich are still not accustomed to the idea of having tall, strongly built men in suits and a solemn face hanging around. It’s considered too indiscreet. “In China, bodyguards are disguised as chauffeurs or secretaries to protect the clients’ safety better,” Shi explains.

But he also says there are cultural differences in the approach to paid protection. In the West, if a VIP’s hat has been blown off by the wind, his bodyguards are not to pick it up for him.  A Chinese magnate though expects such services. “The Chinese super-rich have yet to nurture such a concept — a bodyguard is there to protect his safety, not to be his babysitter,” Shi laments.

It was not until 2010 that privately run security services were even legalized in China, which is when Shi founded his security agency. He aspires to imitate Academi, formerly known as Blackwater USA, a security contractor that has worked for the U.S. State Department and usually retrains retired military or police personnel to become premium armed security guards.

Shi says Chinese often have a very poor awareness of their safety. “In China, many rich people are reluctant to hire bodyguards because they believe that it is showing off,” he explains. “They also worry about privacy.”

Moreover, since their homes and the venues they frequent are thought to be well-secured, VIPs in China don’t feel they are at particular risk. “The truth is that as public figures, rich people often attract hatred of the rich,” and are “in much greater danger than an ordinary person” of calculated attacks, Shi says.

After the Fact

Some 80 percent of Shi’s clients are entrepreneurs, but the majority of them came to him only after running into trouble. “Usually they have already encountered a real security problem in general verbal abuse, but sometimes even physical confrontations, before thinking about hiring bodyguards.”

The latest example is Zong Qinghou, China’s beverage tycoon and the 86th richest man in the world, according to Forbes’ Global Rich List. He was attacked walking out of his own house and injured by someone who had asked him for a job.

In most cases, whether they are robberies or retaliation, the perpetrators aren’t even “professional.” Had these entrepreneurs had a bit more awareness of safety issues, the tragedies wouldn’t have occurred.

A Whole Engineering System

As the number of China’s super-rich grows, so do concerns for personal safety. “The demand is related to economic development, especially in the coastal cities such as Beijing and Shanghai,” says Xin Yang, the general manager of Beijing Yunhai Elite Security.

Industry statistics show that China currently has some 4,000 licensed security firms with as many as 4.3 million security agents and an annual turnover of about 40 billion RMB ($653 million). And there is sure to be plenty of room for growth in the sector.

For the rich and famous, it isn’t just their own personal safety, but that of their families and properties. This is a whole “engineering system,” as Shi puts it.

Shi says the typical procedure when taking on a client is first to assess all the potential risks, then identify the level of danger and finally develop a specific strategy for protection. Teams of five to eight security personnel are typically dispatched. They include those specialized in anti-kidnapping, anti-tracking or target control, as well as those disguised as chauffeurs or secretaries to offer close minute-by-minute protection of the client.

Uneven Quality

Having studied martial arts since the age of 15, and having later worked for years as one of the “Zhongnanhai Guards Group” protecting China’s top leaders, as well as foreign visitors such as Bill Gates, Zhe Meijie is considered one of the top Chinese security specialists.

Zhe says that while more and more security companies are springing up, the industry lacks supervision and public regulations. “It’s a mixed bag,” he says. “We hope that the government will introduce appropriate policies to guide the industry’s development and that practitioners and managers in the sector get better training, as well as learn to cooperate to avoid vicious competition among themselves.”

As such a new industry, China’s bodyguard services are still groping in the dark. To improve standards and find quality recruits, security firms increasingly tap into the ranks of newly retiring police and soldiers. “Decommissioned special forces soldiers possess high military qualities and can adapt themselves fast to bodyguard work,” Shi says. “They are our first choice.”

Before being put into service, candidates must go through a sort of boot camp, including physical training, kickboxing, martial arts and anti-kidnapping training, as well as business protocol.

“If you can’t fight, you definitely can’t be a bodyguard,” Shi says. “But only knowing how to fight doesn’t make you a bodyguard either. What a bodyguard requires most is intelligence.”

Half the training is related to skills and theories such as driving special vehicles, information collection, legal knowledge, public relations, emergency care and social etiquette. Physical techniques represent 20 percent and fighting 30 percent, Shi estimates.

But above all, integrity is still the most important aspect of a profession that involves both danger and privacy. “We are still far from the standards of the profession in advanced countries like America since this is a business that is just starting in China,” says Shi. “We want to become China’s Blackwater, but it’s a tough road. We are learning how to do our job, and we realize that also includes educating the clients.”