China's Unregistered Bodyguard Boom

By That's Shanghai, November 28, 2019

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By George Wyndham

“We don’t use knives, batons or guns to protect our clients,” says Qian Yulin, fixing me with a serious look. “Don’t let the lack of weapons fool you though  anyone who gets in our way is going to have severe physical pain inflicted on them.”

For months I had met a wall of silence in my attempt to get the city's local private security companies to talk to me, but finally Qian, President of Shanghai Security Protection Consulting, had agreed to a meet on condition that I didn't use his real name and that I didn't write any “bad bullshit.”

Now, sitting in his office deep in Pudong, and having agreed to his terms, he is enchantingly candid. The walls are lined with some rather severe looking photos: Qian in prison guard’s uniform; Qian in martial arts attire; Qian in full camouflaged combats crawling through barbed wire being yelled at by furious looking drill instructors.

”Everyone should have military and martial arts training before they get into this line of work,” he explains. “It's important to know how to subdue an attacker quickly and you have to be faster than a weapon it's not like the US, we aren't allowed carry Glocks or submachine guns."

Qian is one of over two million heishi bao'an, unregistered bodyguards in China that have prospered from the growing number of paranoid businessmen, local and foreign celebrities and visits of the international glitterati jet set, all combined with a wealth gap as wide as the Yangtze.

Due to a legal labyrinth, Qian and the rest of his forbidding looking team often double up as chauffeurs, au pairs or discreet members of a VIP’s entourage, such as a secretary or briefcase carrier. Others masquerade in plain clothes, rather than suits, or in uniforms almost identical to those of their authorized counterparts. Even though you’re unlikely to see it out in the open, the shadowy age of private security in China has very much begun.

“The booming of the security industry reflects rich people’s concern about the safety of their families and themselves,” says Ni Shoubin, a professor at the Shanghai Institute of Foreign Trade. Ni recently published a report on the phenomenon of China’s nouveau riche opting to maintain a low profile, dispensing with the once-customary displays of wealth for fear of provoking anger among those less well off.

Qian goes one further, claiming that many of China's new rich get targeted by the gangster underworld, and it is not uncommon for businessmen to hire contract killers to rid themselves of competition. The threat of kidnap is also on the rise for the ruling business elite, and criminals will often send corporate bigwigs photos of their wives and children to coerce them into sharing a slice of their fortune.

"A tragic example would be the little four-year-old girl Sun that only last December was kidnapped in Baoshan District and killed," says Qian. "These are the kind of ruthless people we are dealing with here."

Bodyguard boom in ShanghaiThe Signal 8 Security team guard Donatella Versace

Another would-be protector is 37-year-old Sri Lankan native Chaminda, who works for Hong Kong company Signal 8 Security. They picked up a lot of contracts from the large number of VIPs visiting for the Expo. Unimpressed with the lack of IBA (International Bodyguard Association) certified local protection agencies, Chaminda claims to be part of “the best bodyguard team in Shanghai,” and boasts that his company has the international reach to call on a "global network of hard men to get any job done."

Signal 8 has looked after celebrities as diverse as Sarah Palin, Donatella Versace and Phil Collins – allowing them to carry on their daily activities with minimal disruption is the name of the game. Crowd control is Chaminda’s specialty, and he says that a key element of this is knowing how to restrain or control aggressive people without attracting too much attention.

"When you’re looking after a celebrity like Tiger Woods, fans rush in and believe me some of them will try to hit you if you get in the way," he says. “What you do is simply disable the person, with something as subtle as a wrist twist, before they realize you’re doing anything intentional, and then its like ‘whoops’ he's on the ground screaming in pain, and I've already gone.”

Chaminda points to an embarrassing moment in Beijing when someone famously tried to harass a celebrity, and their bodyguard from another firm, he hastens to add started punching the person in the face, live on television. “Now that’s unprofessional, if you’re well trained that should never happen,” he says.

A less aggressive and more laborious part of the job is to painstakingly anticipate any potential hazards. Chaminda and his team will typically do a few days of 'advance work' before a VIP’s arrival. The extent of this preparation time depends on a client’s 'threat level' when A-list celebrities or Fortune 100 CEOs come to town, they sometimes receive their schedules a full 10 days before their arrival. His team will then go through all of the locations they will be visiting, including evacuation points and the nearest hospitals.

“We also get to know if he or she has any medical conditions that we should be aware of, in addition to their likes, dislikes and daily habits,” he explains. “It’s important for us to know these things if we’re going to be looking after this client in a professional manner.”

While there are a growing numbers of international and local, bodyguard companies in Shanghai, a former security guard at the US Pavilion at Shanghai Expo, who asked not to be named, says that many top political figures rely on their own people. An example of this was the visit of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to the Expo, when he was accompanied by a 2,000-strong machine gun-toting security detail.

“The place was overrun!” he says. “There was even a Russian naval presence in the Huangpu River. The really big guys don’t use local firms – they use their own military and they are armed to the teeth.”

Back in Qian Yulin's office, he believes there will be plenty of work for his company in the coming year, with increasing numbers of corporate CEOs signing up for protection. 

“We might not be IBA trained, but people will continue to use us because people are frightened," he says. “The age of jealousy, fear and revenge is now very much alive in China, and as far as I'm concerned, that's great business for me.”

This article first appeared in the February 2011 issue of That's Shanghai. To see more Throwback Thursday posts, click here.

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