China's new status symbol: a bodyguard
BEIJING // In a badly lit housing complex on the edge of Beijing, one building burns bright late into the night.
This hall, once a community centre for workers at Beijing's airport, is now home to Yun Hai Elite Security - one of hundreds of companies that have sprung up across China in recent years to provide bodyguards for the country's newly minted rich.
Here until 10 every evening, six days a week, former soldiers and athletes learn the skills required to protect people who are increasing resented in this nominally communist county.
"I don't lack clients," says Xin Yang, one of Yun Hai's founders and a former member of the special services in the People's Liberation Army (PLA).
"I have a waiting list for my bodyguards. Our trainees have a 100 per cent employment rate."
Just over a decade ago there was little call for a business like Mr Xin's. Politicians were more respected, international stars rarely visited and the county didn't have a single billionaire.
Now, China is home to at least 243 individuals with assets worth more than US$1 billion (Dh3.67bn) and last year the socialist state produced its millionth millionaire.
But inequality has also risen dramatically with the richest 10 per cent of households earning some 65 times more than the poorest households, according to data from China's National Economic Research Institute.
That, combined with the perception that many of the wealthy made their money through corruption or by exploiting the poor, has fuelled widespread anger at the rich.
In a recent survey, 60 per cent of China's wealthy said they were considering emigrating. They said they wanted better education for their children and a cleaner environment. Many also said they felt insecure in China.
But for those who cannot or do not want to leave, firms like Yun Hai offer everything from 24-hour protection by bodyguards to an "all-in-one" service where the bodyguard doubles as a driver, or even a secretary.
"Generally speaking China is safe," says Mr Xin. "But it gets more dangerous the richer you get."
Kidnap for ransom is the most common danger, said Mr Xin, but murder is not unheard of.
For years the government tried to discourage private security companies, fearing they might be used as henchmen or that their existence implied that socialism had failed.
But with companies offering these services now in their thousands - many of which were founded by senior figures in the army or police - China's Ministry of Security has started recognising them.
The terminology attached to the industry is still very sensitive though. The ministry insists that bodyguards be referred to as "security consultants" to avoid comparisons with America or pre-socialist China.
"The word 'bodyguard' has a very negative image in China," says Mr Xin. "But it is really the only word to describe what we do."
Mr Xin founded his company along with a colonel in the army in 2009, the year after China staged the Summer Olympics. Since then, he says it has doubled in size every year.
Most of their clients are involved with mining or real estate, but increasingly middle-class people are turning to him for temporary protection during messy divorces or child-custody disputes.
Also, more international business people and celebrities are visiting China. Yun Hai provided security for actor Christian Bale when he was in China recently filming Flowers of War and for Bill Gates when he visited in September 2010.
As China's footprint overseas has increased in recent years, Mr Xin has also found himself training people to protect Chinese businessman and assets in places such as Libya and Iraq.
But both he and other people in the industry agree the main growth is from inside China.
"China is only going to get richer and demand for our services is going to grow," said Chen Yongqing, another former PLA solider who runs another security company, Tianjiao Special Guards.
To meet that demand, Yun Hai has its recruits on a tight training schedule.
Chinese bodyguards are not allowed to carry guns so Yun Hai's trainees spend 500 of the 800 hours required to graduate honing their martial arts skills.
They also learn first aid, English, how to defuse explosives and recognise poisonous substances.
The majority of them are ex-special forces, helping to provide jobs for the tens of thousands of people who leave the military each year, said Mr Xin. But there are some, especially the women, who come from martial arts backgrounds.
Mr Xin's clients pay upwards of Dh11,650 a month for round-the-clock protection by a single bodyguard, who earns roughly the same as a Chinese university graduate would make in a good first job.
Some guards come to the business because they are poor and lack other opportunities, said Mr Xin, but many do it because they are proud of their skills and seek excitement.
Lei Xiaoming, a smiley 22-year-old from Hunan province, was learning how to disarm an assailant wielding a meat cleaver - apparently the weapon of choice for many would-be assassins in China.
The former weightlifter explained that he had given up a good job at his uncle's company to join Yun Hai.
"I wanted to find a job that is interesting and keeps me fit," he said. "Besides, this is a new industry. Maybe I can use the skills learn here to become rich and hire a bodyguard myself one day."