Being rich in China can be dangerous – unless you have a bodyguard. The security business in China is booming.

BodyguardOn a cold January morning, visitors streamed in and out of the Southern Chinese Shanxi office of Li Haicang. Nothing was out of the ordinary until a lone assassin produced a sawn-off rifle and fired a bullet into Li’s body. Until that fateful moment, Li was the chairman of a multi-national company and 27th on the Forbes list of China’s richest people. Only several weeks later on the 12th of February, a Chinese millionaire from the wealthy enclave on Wenzhou in Zhejiang Province was stabbed to death outside his home by five men in a pre-planned assassination attack. Various media reports indicated that in 2004 alone, around 4,000 people were kidnapped in China.

Well-known actor Wu Ruofu was abducted whilst driving his BMW and hidden in the north of Beijing by a notorious Chinese organised crime group who demanded a ransom, but police were able to track them down after several hours and freed Wu. These incidents are just several in part of a growing number of occupational hazards for China’s emerging ultra-rich; assassination and kidnapping are a reason why many of China’s rich are undertaking precautionary measures, which are becoming more and more necessary. With around 30 percent of China’s millionaires believed to be women and a widening wealth gap, safety has become an issue for the rich. It is easy to see that private security and, in particular, baobiao (the Chinese word for bodyguard) is taking off as the nation struggles with some of the side effects of its booming growth. A 2004 media report in the China Daily newspaper stated that in Guangzhou alone, the private security industry employed no fewer than 5,000 personal bodyguards.

Australian Eddie Wazen is an industry expert based in Beijing who is leading the way in developing new training programs and services for the Chinese market. He is the Director of Strategic Risk, Business and Education for the TA Group, Vice President of the Public Safety Institute and the Director of Operations for Street Edge Krav Maga International (China), which provides authentic Israeli Krav Maga and Public Safety, Policing and Counterterrorism training. During his 15 years in China, Wazen has trained officers from the police, law enforcement and the growing number of corporate firms offering bodyguards. He has also been instrumental in designing training programs for a number of organisations, including the Beijing Tourism Group in preparation for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

Wazen states that a large number of China’s private bodyguards are retired police and/or soldiers from elite units, or former Chinese secret-service members; however, a large number of wealthy Chinese are turning to female bodyguards. He recalls a local executive, who had received threats that his child would be kidnapped, hired a female bodyguard to escort his child to and from school. He says that employers of bodyguards in China are successful people, like senior executives of foreign or private businesses, as well as entertainers and a growing number of entrepreneurs.

According to Wazen, there are bodyguard training programs designed specifically for females advertised at martial arts schools where the training curriculum includes instruction in driving, computer skills, self-defence related laws and “polite conversation”. The teachers at these schools are veteran martial arts specialists, former special forces soldiers and operational bodyguards. Female bodyguards are becoming more and more popular as businessmen want them to protect wives, girlfriends and children.

A female bodyguard from one of Wazen’s former bodyguard team said that woman in China today are more confident in venturing into careers that in years gone past would have been forbidden or perceived as male dominated. He says that there has also been a growing demand for private bodyguards being hired by Taiwanese pop singers and prominent entertainers when visiting mainland China.

When asked who makes the best bodyguard, he is quick to note that the Chinese have long prized Manchurian bodyguards for their physical size, loyalty and bravery, but female bodyguards have many advantages of their own. Furthermore, many bodyguard training programs place a large emphasis on fitness and physical exercise and often the bodyguard will double as a coach in fitness training.

Many former career military and police officers turned entrepreneur have identified the specialist market of private security and its success in Western society and have now turned their focus on China. Just over a decade ago, the industry did not legally exist. Although there have been several security firms who have received China’s Ministry of State approval to do business if their founders have at least five years of security experience, the employment of personal bodyguards in China is still a grey area as far as the law goes and there are no laws yet that completely govern the industry.

The word bodyguard previously had a very negative image in China and, because of the lack of legal clarity surrounding private bodyguards, their work is often described as personal assistant or advisor, with their multi functions reflected in the job description. Some firms have also resorted to calling their bodyguard firm a business etiquette firm, although of late, the Ministry of State insists that the word security consultant be used to avoid comparisons with the bodyguard image in America and other Western nations. Many lawyers believe that what is not specifically forbidden by law should be legal; however, government officials claim that no firm can legally be registered as a private bodyguard service. There have been a number of occasions where firms have been shut down by the Public Security Bureau (PSB).

Wazen states that as far back as the early 1990s there was a special course in Wuhan, Central China, which offered young women the opportunity to train as bodyguards. In 1999, he was invited to teach at the Dalian Peoples Police College where he witnessed firsthand a large number of young, fit and attractive females being trained as bodyguards by a specialist unit within the police. These ladies had been trained in all aspects of bodyguarding, including firearms and Chinese martial arts.

An example of the popularity of females attending these programs was highlighted in a Chinese media report, which stated that a College of Physical Education in Wuhan received 3,000 enquiries when it first announced that it would begin offering a six-month training program to teach women how to become bodyguards. The report stated that of that number, over 700 women formally applied and 150 were accepted.

The past decade has been a special time in the history of China and the country has been and is still in an economic transition. As such, China is no different to many other countries and crimes towards rich people are inevitable. Furthermore, a widening gap between the rich and poor, the 2008 Olympic Games, the global market and the rise in international terrorism have all raised safety concerns among the nation’s elite. This is another reason why private bodyguard services have surfaced and are increasing each year.

Like their Western counterparts, many Chinese performers and business executives employ bodyguards as a symbol of their status and prestige. However, another reason for the increase in popularity of having a bodyguard is the crime rate. Whilst serious crimes such as robbery, theft and murder are still less frequent then in Western society, they are becoming more and more common in China.

Chinese criminal gangs are also now renowned for carrying weapons, including firearms, allegedly bought illegally from corrupt police or military personnel. Furthermore, there have been a number of major incidents over the past several years, including during the countdown to the Summer Olympic Games in Beijing. Some of those included the March 2008 hijacking of a bus in Xian, which was carrying Australian passengers, by a Chinese man wearing explosives and threatening to blow it up. There was an alleged attempt by Uighur minorities in China to hijack a plane traveling to Beijing in the same year.

Many Chinese are rushing to join the ranks of one of China’s newest and best paid professions – Chinese bodyguards can look forward to salaries of about $200–$5000 USD a month, depending on their military/police background, formal bodyguard training, education, appearance, knowledge of martial arts and foreign languages. However, whilst many sign up to a world of glamour, there are many underlying problems, including exploitation of female bodyguards as nothing more than an attractive fashion accessory or ornament. However, some companies also require a secretary, public relations officer and a bodyguard, so in a female they can have all roles put into one.

The director of a firm that Wazen and his team has previously trained stated that he dresses his bodyguards in matching designer suits and long black coats as a symbol of status and, as far as he is concerned, if people see this in conjunction with his latest European designer car then it means success and that they will want to do business with him.

In 2008, Wazen was invited to train students undertaking specialist bodyguard training in the lead up to the Beijing Olympic Games. He also oversees several Chinese bodyguard teams for visiting movie stars and celebrities, as well as company directors and banking executives. A client of Wazen, who asked not to be identified, said he had decided to get protection after a close friend was abducted and killed when the ransom exchange was compromised. He now employs 15 bodyguards and pays approximately 400,000 Yuan ($68,800 AUD) for each bodyguard.

Wazen states that the Chinese bodyguards rely too much on traditional and outdated martial arts skills, which are not relevant to the modern bodyguard. Whilst having these skills is an advantage, they are not suited to the close-quarter and dynamic situations of the modern era. Instead, systems such as Street Edge Krav Maga are much more suited to the bodyguard/high risk protection industry due to its close-quarter effectiveness.

Wazen said that, like Australia and the Western world, there are some schools which are professional and understand the complexities of what constitutes the role of a bodyguard, whilst there are many other courses that use an outdated training manual without any formal experience or training.

Over the past several years, there have been prominent media reports throughout China which have shown young female students at a bodyguard training school having bottles smashed over their heads.  It is designed to prepare them in the event they may encounter this type of attack when they are bodyguards. As Wazen states, this type of training is more for show than having any real learning outcomes for the students. Students can expect to pay up to 12,000 Yuan ($2,100 AUD) for a three- or four-week course, which results in little more than the students’ ability to crawl through mud, dive through fire, immerse themselves in freezing water and use nunchucks.

Furthermore, he said that students were often subjected to physical abuse from instructors and that undertaking training with replica Chinese 95 semi-automatic rifles and pistols was counterproductive, as the law prohibits private security guards from carrying guns, and there are also very strict laws in relation to carrying knives. In theory, Chinese bodyguards do not have any special privileges and they have the same rights and responsibilities as civilians, including having no right or entitlement to carry firearms. However, it is often the case that many do carry weapons in complete violation of the law and they are often ‘protected’ by corrupt government officials or because they ‘know’ someone.

There are unconfirmed reports that there may be over 20,000 companies throughout China who are involved in security, bodyguarding and private investigation work. Although there are some that are licensed by the state PSB, Wazen believes that there are many firms operating underground or in a grey area, with little regulation or by paying bribes to local government officials to turn the other way.

With the increase of crime in China, the government is not in a position to send police and troops to provide personal protection to private entrepreneurs, local and foreign business executives and for those that require around-the-clock safety measures. Furthermore, there are an increasing number of foreign executives, entertainment and corporate businesses conducting business in China and many of these expect the same type of private security found in their native countries.

Over the past decade, and in particular since China became a member of the World Trade Organization, Wazen has noticed a trend in Chinese bodyguard firms seeking formal educational accreditation for their bodyguards and security specialists. As China continues to open up to the modern international world, education and formal qualifications in specialist fields such as personal protection is being sought from renowned subject matter expert countries such as Australia, Israel and the US.

Although the Chinese Government is moving aggressively to punish kidnappers, often by the death penalty, the threat of the kidnapping boom continues to grow, as does the increase of incidents involving less well-off people attacking luxury cars and causing accidents or personal attacks from employees.

According to Wazen, the gap between rich and poor is getting spread further and there will be ongoing problems in Chinese society. He said that there is a saying in China: You will laugh at those poorer than you and hate those richer than you. In a country where the Forbes’ China Rich List estimates there are 168 billionaires, the bodyguard and security industry has broken from the shadows of the dragon and is now in high demand.

Paul Johnstone
Experienced Security Advisor and Trainer/Lecturer skilled in Crisis Management, Law Enforcement, Counter Terrorism, Emergency Management, Investigations, and Physical Security. Strong military and federal law enforcement professional who graduated from University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), Australian Federal Police College and various tertiary institutions in Australia and China.