Academic journal article Social Justice

The Private/public Security Nexus in China

Academic journal article Social Justice

The Private/public Security Nexus in China

Article excerpt

TODAY THE PRIVATE SECURITY SECTOR IN CHINA IS BOOMING. As OF DECEMBER 2006, almost four million authorized private security guards were operating, a 100% increase over the previous year. (1) The 2006 figure includes 930,000 security personnel who work for companies owned directly by China's public security bureaus (PSB), and three million personnel who work for companies monitored and managed by PSB. In 2006, security personnel helped to capture 162,000 individuals suspected of committing crimes or misdemeanors, and provided police with 220,000 sources of information related to crime incidents (Wang, 2007). It is reported that in 2006, security guards prevented potential theft of property worth 2.05 billion yuan (U.S.$260,000) (Ibid.) and private security companies made 7.5 billion yuan (U.S.$940 million) in profit. In Beijing, there are 76,000 registered security personnel, compared to 50,000 police, and 18 cities and provinces in China have more than 50,000 registered security guards. The areas with the fastest growing numbers of security guards are Guangxi province and Tibet, where the numbers have more than doubled in one year (Ibid.). The four million legitimate security personnel are the tip of a much larger private security iceberg. Millions of unregistered or "black market private security" (heishi bao'an) personnel operate in uniforms almost identical to those of their authorized counterparts, and in some areas, the proportion of black market to legitimate guards is one to one. (2) In 2004, the number of illegitimate security guards in Liaoning province reportedly outnumbered the 72,000 registered guards and in some areas the proportion of illegitimate to legitimate was two to one. (3)

The system of registered private security was established and is run entirely by China's police force in public security departments, bureaus, and sub-bureaus at the provincial, municipal, and county levels. This article surveys the complex relationship between the public/private sectors. It explores the tensions between two disparate interests, crime prevention and private profit, drawing the conclusion that security marketization--in an era of high crime and low public investment in crime prevention--has become a necessary but not unproblematic trademark of policing in today's China.

The Post-Mao Reemergence of Private Security

China now lays claim to one of the world's largest contingents of security guards and to a history of private security that is among the world's oldest and most enduring. In imperial times, the monied classes saw private security guards as an economic necessity. Any movement of wealthy people and their possessions required the presence of bodyguards. Thus, while the system of policing is only about 100 years old in China, as is the separation of China's judicial and executive systems, private security guards have been an integral part of economic, political, and social life at least since the Song Dynasty in the 11th century. (4) But this long tradition accounts only minimally for the rapid rise of the private security industry over the last 20 years.

The term bao'an (private security) did not exist in imperial times. Security guard companies were referred to as biaoju, meaning "bureau of guards" and were private security firms registered officially at the local government level. Their main task was to protect the movement and material possessions of wealthy people within and between cities. They also provided public services for local governments on important occasions such as the Lantern and Moon Festivals. These tasks of the biaoju resonate with private security work today; they are officially registered with municipal governments, operate within a market economy, and their customers pay for their services. They have a stable organizational structure and have a contingent of employees that is at least nominally trained. Today they are hired by public and private entities to act as guards, to provide transportation protection, and to protect public order during specific public events. …

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