Money’s so tight these days that even the real mercenaries are complaining. Stojko, a Serb friend-for-life I made as a reporter long ago during the siege of Sarajevo, is a case in point. A veteran craftsman in the dark arts of soldiering and security, Stojko is used to putting his life on the line for an approximate fee of approximately US$500 per day. There is now, however, he tells me, a new fierce threat to his very existence. “The Chinese are killing me,” he says. “I can’t make a profit.”
This new player is a former soldier Chen Yongqing and his corporation Tianjiao. By only charging 500,000 yuan (US$82,400) a year for each protector, Tianjou can massively undercut the kind of mercenary clearing houses which often charge as much as $200,000 for identical services. Originally an academy formed to teach ex-soldiers how to be bodyguards, business is now so good that Chen is considering listing the business on the stock market. There’s a fortune to be made in the west. The problem, however, is that a portion of the company’s seed money was put-up by people of influence from both the Communist Party and the military. When government officials constantly have their palms out and a ‘gimme’ attitude, it’s difficult to talk about the big picture, stocks, bonds and expansion.
“When we started our business, most of our clients were celebrities,” Chen, 30, told Reuters. “Now our clientele is more rich entrepreneurs. It’s all related to their business because bodyguards are a status symbol.”
When China’s nouveau ríche do their business in Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Indonesia, and Japan they are susceptible to ethnic Chinese criminals and kidnappers. Bodyguards have to be ruthless. Business trips to Venezuela and Brazil, where both indigenous criminals and Triads with old-country roots are especially dangerous. In China itself, Chen says, the danger is more abstract. Ostentatiousness is often the enemy in a world where anger is reflected in public acts of nihilistic rage concerning the widening gap between rich and poor. Incidents of people attacking luxury cars involved in accidents with the less well-off citizens are becoming more any more common. Although such incidents are rarely reported in mainland Chinese newspapers, they are spoken of exhaustively on QQ, China’s home-grown version of Facebook.
Although he wouldn’t acknowledge it when interviewed, eyewitness accounts speak of a number of recent incidents where limousines may or may not have accidentally hit bicyclists and a mob riot ensued. One in particular in Shanghai where a driver, a bodyguard and the son of a Politburo member were all dragged out of a car and badly beaten by the mob and someone lost an eye were told of in scores of anecdotes and subsequent commentary posted all over QQ until Communist Party fat cats had them erased.
Consequently, along with training from elite Chinese commandos, Tianjiao has begun to hire security experts from Israel, Russia, the U.K. and France. According to an account published in China’s Global Times because so many ethnic Chinese businesses worldwide, both legal and illegal, insist upon dealing in easy-to-launder cash money, modern bodyguards have to be ready, willing and able to kill at all times. One businessman, a distributor of a rare and particularly potent form of ginseng medicines throughout the world, who asked not to be identified, said he had originally approached Chen eighteen months before and thought his prices way too inflated. It was only after a colleague was kidnapped, tortured and killed that he made the leap of faith and hired eighteen bodyguards from Tianjiao.
“Apart from the security in my company, they are also responsible for the safety of my family,” the businessman said. “Society is not stable nowadays.”
Meanwhile, my friend Stojko protests because he’s sure Tianjiao will underbid him for a contract to be the bodyguard crew of a certain adolescent actor/pop star when he tours the Philippines.
Chen expects Tianjiao’s annual revenues to hit 100 million yuan (UAS$16.5m) within the next five years. “We are planning to collaborate with investors and venture capital firms for a company listing,” he said.