“Mr Sunglasses” insists he rarely removes his eyewear, “even when I’m in the shower.”
The factory pumping out Chinese bodyguards
The former soldier insists he knows how to carry out a successful robbery. He can spot the flaws in how security guards operate when picking up cash from banks. He knows how to evade security cameras, and what explosives to use to blow off the doors of armored vehicles.
Thankfully, this isn’t all part of some criminal masterplan.
In fact Mr Sunglasses, also known as Wang Yuhao, is using his skills to put new recruits through their paces at one of China’s top bodyguard factories.
Wang, who spent 12 years in the Chinese military – at one point he was part of the unit guarding Wen Jiabao, the country’s number two leader – is one of the top trainers at Zhongzhou Bodyguard in the southern city of Shenzhen.
He joined the company in 2011 and now, aged “nearly 40,” he splits his time between looking after elite businesspeople at home and abroad, and teaching others how to do so.
Newcomers to his bodyguard boot camp, many of whom have previous experience in the military or law enforcement, can expect to undergo grueling training lasting for three months or longer. Their days typically start with a 10-mile run, followed by three hours of classroom work on the theoretical aspects of the security business.
In the afternoon it’s back to the physical side of things, with lots of gym work and specialist training: from hand-to-hand combat to knife-throwing and marksmanship. Other valued skills include languages – English especially – while tattoos or a criminal record are a no-no.
If they make the grade, the bodyguards could well find themselves assigned to protect businesses and their employees operating in high-risk parts of the world such as the Middle East.
China’s booming economy, and ambitious plans to build trade infrastructure across Asia and Africa, has seen it spending billions of dollars in some of the world’s most volatile areas, and also sending thousands of its citizens to work in these places.
That means there’s a growing demand for security guards to protect them.
Although the Chinese government has highlighted the need to keep its citizens safe overseas, it is reluctant to use its armed forces to do so. However, the country’s foreign affairs ministry said its embassies have been inundated with requests for help by businesses and companies – with 20% of the cases involving kidnappings, robberies and assaults.
In one of the most notorious incidents, last year two Chinese teachers kidnapped in Pakistan were murdered by militants linked to Islamic State.
Michael Humphreys, from the British-based consultancy Control Risks, which works alongside Chinese security firms, said that many Chinese firms perceive themselves to be high-level targets. “That perception is driven by the media, like the tragedy of the two Chinese who were killed in Pakistan, and other incidents over the past few years.”
A new market
The global fight against terrorism that followed the 9/11 attacks opened the doors to a massively lucrative new market for private security companies.
But there are constraints on how and where Chinese security companies can operate – in some cases getting visas can be a problem. In countries such as Pakistan, the firms are only permitted to operate alongside local operators.
In China, private sector companies have been permitted to provide overseas security services only since 2010, when the government opened up a market that previously had been state-controlled.
Which is where companies such as Wang’s entered the marketplace. Another private bodyguard firm, DeWe Security, was set up in 2011 and saw its workforce grow from 60 to about 4,000 by the middle of last year, the majority of whom were based overseas.
Such has been the speed of expansion that it struggled to keep pace, according to Hao Gang, the general manager of its Beijing headquarters. “The biggest challenge for us is having enough talented people. Since 2011 we’ve trained 500 people, yet we still can’t keep up with the demand.”
He said successful applicants are paid an average of $2,200 a month – and can get double that amount in the riskiest locations, just slightly less than their American or European counterparts are paid.
Humphreys said one problem was that some Chinese firms assessed the level of risk according to how well the Chinese government got along with the host country, rather than taking into account the situation on the ground.
As Wang discovered in South Africa a few years ago, even less politically charged postings can become dangerous if the Chinese workers offend local sensibilities.
In July 2014, he was working as a risk consultant to protect a team of engineers at a state-run company, when he had to evacuate them from a base about 200 miles north of Cape Town, after local security guards armed with firearms, grenades and explosives attacked the Chinese shortly before the end of the project.
He said the South African workers were angered by what they perceived as the special privileges that Chinese workers enjoyed.
“The Chinese workers wore bright clothes, bathed in fresh water, ate big meals and smoked expensive cigarettes,” he said. “All the local staff got was a bar of made-in-China chocolate.”
Although he did not want to go into too much detail about what had happened, he said that shots had been fired and that 17 Chinese citizens were injured, non-fatally.
Ultimately, Wang was able to bring about a peaceful end to the conflict. A financial settlement was made with the local guards, who agreed to allow the Chinese workers to finish their project – all without getting the local police involved.
After all, a bodyguard has to know when to fight – and when to talk.