CHENGDU, CHINA — On the outskirts of this western city, in a field of bright yellow flowers, Wang Xi stood on a wrestling mat and eyed her opponent, a brawny man with short-cropped hair fresh from the army. After a quick bow, she lunged at his legs, flipped him over and, within seconds, pinned him to the ground.
Yang Shengli, a career military man turned entrepreneur, watched from behind his sunglasses with satisfaction. Wang, a former junior judo champion from Inner Mongolia, is a star on his female team training for the Summer Olympics in Beijing. But they're not going as athletes -- they'll be there as bodyguards for rich Chinese and foreign VIPs.
"Not bad," Yang said after watching Wang and another recruit, a kickboxing champ, take down a team of male security guards. "Their power is enough. I'm more concerned about their mental fitness; how they can handle an emergency."
About 2 million Chinese, along with half a million foreigners, are expected to travel to Beijing for the Summer Games. Tens of thousands of police from across the nation will be called to help secure the city, but safety concerns are rising as the Games approach.
In March, a bus with Australian passengers was seized by a man wearing explosives in Xian, one of China's most popular tourist sites. Then there was an alleged attempt by Uighur minorities in China to hijack a plane. And deadly protests in Tibet spread to Gansu and Sichuan provinces.
Private security is taking off as the nation struggles with some of the side effects of its booming growth. A widening rich-poor gap has left wealthy Chinese feeling vulnerable. There are regular reports of attacks targeting the rich. One Chinese company now offers kidnapping insurance.
"It's a special period, China is in an economic transition," said He Jiahong, professor of law at People's University in Beijing. "There are lots of conflicts appearing in society, and crimes toward rich people are inevitable. . . . This is why private guard services appeared and increased."
Yang's company, Anrong Bodyguard Security Consultant, was launched about a year ago. Since then, it has grown to about 100 guards, whose clients have included actor Jackie Chan. Yang won't reveal his fees for the Olympics, but in ordinary times for ordinary people, he says it's at least $140 for an eight-hour day, excluding expenses.
With wavy hair and a slight paunch, the 51-year-old has an avuncular look and demeanor that belies a life of drills and preparation for attack. He joined the army at 14, rose to first lieutenant, then became a police officer in Xian. He says he moved to Chengdu about a decade ago, when he began to take up private security work.
"This field of work, there is a big need for it," he said at Anrong's spartan office.
Yang has kept a watchful eye on the Tibet violence. "We are paying great attention to this because Chengdu is a tourist city," he said, citing Jiu Zhaigou National Park and Wolong Giant Panda Reserve Center nearby. "Now the demand for our services will be even higher, and the risks will be larger. . . . It raises the pressure on us. We cannot afford to make any mistakes."
He, the professor, said there might be more than 20,000 companies in China related to private investigation and security. But many appear to operate underground or in a gray area with little regulation. Yang said his firm was licensed by the state Public Security Bureau.
David Yan, 36, a real estate developer in Chengdu, said he has had a bodyguard for three years, the last year with Anrong.
"Maybe it was a little out of vanity," he said. "When I saw my friends with guards, I wanted to have one too."
But Yan had a legitimate reason as well. A few years ago, one of his friends was forcibly taken to a remote area; the abductors asked for about $60,000. Yan said his friend was released after the money was delivered. "This incident shook me up. All of sudden, I felt very unsafe."
Yang said Chinese law prohibits private security guards from carrying guns, and there are strict regulations on knives too. He says his guards usually tote just a small stick, so their hands and feet must serve as weapons.
That's why Yang's training course runs for several months and why he scours the country for talent. Female guards are the most in demand, Yang says, because businessmen want them to protect wives and children.
Anrong requires its female guards to be in their 20s and stand at least 5 feet 4. Wang, the 24-year-old judo champ, beats that height requirement by almost 3 inches. The daughter of steelworkers, she joined a professional judo team straight out of middle school.
It was a grueling life: training and competing took eight hours a day, six days a week. For that, she earned about $140 a month, less than what many factory workers make.
After Anrong recruited Yang's old judo coach -- a national bronze medalist -- the coach called Wang. She jumped at the chance to be a bodyguard.
"I'm excited about going to Beijing," she said, sweating in a navy-blue uniform and combat boots. "Our boss keeps telling us to be prepared."
Cao Jun in The Times' Shanghai bureau contributed to this report.