Joey Oosting has served as a professional soldier all across the world and today protects China's rich and famous. [Provided to China Daily]
Western mercenary-turned-security expert can do the job in country without weapons
Bodyguard Joey Oosting (not his real name) does not have a handlebar-mustache, is not deeply tanned, muscle-bound or, apparently, driven by material gain. If he has personal demons, they must have taken the day off when we meet at a Chinese fast food joint in uptown Shanghai.
There is no shock of unkempt hair (he prefers a combed fringe), and no sign of psychological trauma. Instead this ex-Special Forces soldier is sporting a white T-shirt, shorts and a smile. He looks more like a good-natured English teacher than a lethal weapon. The look is intentional.
"Do you mind if I take this seat," he asks, indicating a position in the restaurant facing the window. "I like to see who's coming and going. It's kind of a habit."
Oosting is one of three non-Chinese working as private bodyguards in Shanghai for VSP Executive Protection & Event Security, the executive arm of VSP Security Group. His boss is a reputable bodyguard from Hungary and the third man is from the United States. Oosting has only been on the payroll with VSP for a couple of months.
He first came to China in 2003 on a scholarship to study Asian Trade Management (ATM). "I liked the A, but not the TM," he says.
After his studies, all of his holidays have been in China. Since joining VSP, he has already protected rapper Usher, who held a concert in Shanghai, and Hong Kong action stars Jackie Chan and Donny Yen.
"I was front stage for Usher to give CP (close protection)," says Oosting, in his military jargon-laced vernacular. "One guy rushed the stage and got quickly dispatched by my colleague. He's not a very friendly guy when you breach his perimeter."
With China now boasting 115 billionaires with fortunes in excess of $1 billion (686 million euros) and almost 600,000 citizens with net assets of 10 million yuan (1 million euros), the private security industry is set for huge growth as minted members of the public scramble to protect their wealth.
The industry was privatized in the last few years, but it remains firmly off limits to foreign firms. However Chinese companies are crying out for foreign personnel, according to Oosting. The problem is that the average salary in China is hardly worth the risk.
Clients can hire a round-the-clock, certified bodyguard for 300,000 yuan (32,000 euros) a year, according to local media reports. Oosting, who is paid on a per-job basis, is lucky to walk away with 1,800 euros at the end of the month. Add to this the temptation for highly trained ex-soldiers of working in fantastically lucrative conflict zones in Africa, and the foreign talent pool drops further.
Private security as an industry was banned in China 11 years ago in a bid to stamp out the unsavory police connections that sprang up with it. However, all the ban seemed to do was drive firms deeper underground.
In 2009, the Ministry of State Security (MSS) said that some 2,800 companies were offering such services illegally in an industry worth 7.9 billion yuan (835 million euros) a year. More than 2 million security guards are now in force, according to media reports. Many are still illegal.
In January 2010, the MSS passed new laws allowing Chinese companies to offer private security services, but only if the founder has at least five years experience in the police, army, a justice department or in security guard service management.
The new rules allow the use of firearms for high-risk situations, although less than a handful of companies at present meet these requirements. The regulations stipulate that the company must, among other things, have registered capital in excess of 10 million yuan, with state-owned capital taking up more than 51 percent of the total.
Not that Oosting needs a weapon. He knows how to "reduce his enemy's combat effectiveness to zero", in the words of his former sergeant. His three and a half years' training in Krav Maga, or Israeli military combat, is usually enough to finish the job. Alternatively, he can defer to his kungfu training (21 years), Chinese boxing skills (13 years), Muay Thai expertise or general experience in the theater of war.
"In a country like China, weapons aggravate people, because they are associated with the army," says Oosting, who does not want to reveal his nationality but says he holds two European passports. "Most assaults here feature nothing bigger than a box-cutter knife, if any weapon at all, so we usually don't need guns. I prefer my (extendable) baton."
He then went on to explain how it is possible to train yourself to withstand a Taser stun gun attack, before segueing into how a buddy of his in the artillery uses mace as an inhaler to open his sinuses when he catches a cold.
"But as a bodyguard, if I had to use violence, I would think I hadn't done my job properly, especially my reconnaissance," he adds.
VSP has already cornered much of the market. It employs 2,500 people and owns 70 percent of the private security market in the greater China region, according to Oosting. This ranges from uniformed security guards in banks and parking lots to plainclothes guarding private entrepreneurs.
"We totally own Chengdu (in Sichuan), and maybe have 60 percent of the Shanghai market," he said.
Rivals such as Shanghai Security Protection Consulting and Hong Kong's Signal 8 Security, which cashed in on last year's World Expo and its plethora of VIP contracts, help eat up the rest of the pie in China's financial hub. However many top diplomats and celebrities, from Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to LA Lakers star Kobe Bryant, prefer to bring their own muscle. They like guys who look intimidating, guys who don't blend in.
In contrast, Oosting looks exactly like what he has been trained to be: unspectacular. He is "the no face, the guy sitting around listening to his headphones", to use his words. In army parlance, he is the grey man.
Oosting lists "crowd hysteria" and "language" as the biggest occupational hazards in China. He says it takes discipline to react - often with shocking brutality - to quell stampedes of teenage fans rushing police and safety perimeters to get close to their heroes.
"We resort to desperate measures, any which way we can, if necessary," he says.