It’s curious that the Chinese, who are usually not afraid of conspicuous consumption, have until recently been hesitant to hire bodyguards, rejecting the practice as showy. But now more and more of the country's well-heeled are conscious of the security risks they face and are demanding professional protection. 

China did not legalize privately-run security services until 2010, but since then, 4,000 licensed security firms have sprung up with as many as 4.3 million security agents, and an annual industry-wide revenue of about 40 billion yuan ($63 million), the Economic Observer, a weekly Chinese newspaper, reported Thursday.

But overall the Chinese continue to have a very poor awareness of their safety. Many only decide to hire bodyguards after having run into trouble, said Shi Xingfeng, president of Bojing Security Agency.

“Usually they have already encountered a real security problem in general verbal abuse, but sometimes even physical confrontations, before thinking about hiring bodyguards,” Shi added.

The latest example is Zong Qinghou, China’s beverage tycoon and the 86th-richest man in the world, according to Forbes’ Global Rich List. He was attacked walking out of his own house and injured by someone who had asked him for a job. In most cases in China the perpetrators are not professionals, and if these entrepreneurs had a bit more awareness of safety issues, the tragedies wouldn’t have occurred.

Concern for personal safety is climbing now that China has more wealthy individuals than ever. Most entrepreneurs are also concerned with the safety of their families and properties.

“The demand is related to economic development, especially in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai,” said Xin Yang, the general manager of Beijing Yunhai Elite Security, according to the Economic Observer.

After an initial risk assessment, usually a team of five to eight security personnel is dispatched – some specialize in anti-kidnapping, anti-tracking or target control. Some body guards are disguised as chauffeurs or secretaries to avoid the appearance of conspicuous consumption that comes with having a highly visible professional security detail.

“In China, many rich people are reluctant to hire bodyguards because they believe that it is showing off,” Shi explained. “They also worry about privacy.”

Like many new industries, private security is a little-regulated sector in China at the moment, and companies are groping in the dark.

“We hope that the government will introduce appropriate policies to guide the industry’s development,” Zhe Meijie, one of the top Chinese security specialists, said.

“It’s a mixed bag,” Zhe added, speaking to the varying qualities security firms provide without proper industry guidance. Many industry leaders prefer retiring police and soldiers as these groups possess high military qualities and can adapt themselves to the work rapidly, but it takes more than that.

“If you can’t fight, you definitely can’t be a bodyguard,” Shi said. “But only knowing how to fight doesn’t make you a bodyguard either. What a bodyguard requires most is intelligence.”

The industry is very young, and experts at the top like Shi understand that their services have a while to go before reaching international standards, the Economic Observer reported. Nonetheless, the sector is growing and could reach impressive heights, if Shi’s ambitions are realized.

“We want to become China’s Blackwater, but it’s a tough road,” Shi said, referring to the American security contractor, now known as Academi, that has worked for the U.S. State Department. “We are learning how to do our job.”