SHANGHAI, China — Hired by Chinese businesses, Adi Talmor robs, kidnaps and does his general best to make thousands of workers suffer.
But Talmor isn’t a criminal; he’s a consultant. The 38-year-old former Israeli paratrooper instructs Chinese workers in what he calls personal security training. It’s a field that has recently emerged across China, mirroring the country’s expansion into some of the world’s more perilous markets.
In accordance with Beijing’s “go-global” strategy, state-owned enterprises have signed multibillion-dollar deals in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. Meanwhile, trade has flourished. In 2008, China bypassed the United States to become Africa’s top trade partner.
More and more Chinese workers head to places like Iraq, Nigeria and Pakistan to work in mining, oil-drilling and the sale of all things “Made in China.” But there is an underbelly to this economic growth.
Increasingly, Chinese workers abroad are being confronted with the security risks in these turbulent countries. Chinese topped the list of kidnapped foreign nationals in 2008, followed by French and Germans, according to Special Contingency Risks, a British kidnap insurance firm.
Somali pirates hijacked a cargo ship on June 28 with a crew of 19 Chinese, including two college interns. Earlier in June, a Chinese construction company reported that an employee was killed in a terrorist attack in Algeria.
And yet, the dangers of working abroad have created even more business at home in China.
Talmor’s Beijing-based security company, Alfa-angel, never planned to advise on how to cope with overseas crime and terrorism threats, according to Talmor. “But we had Chinese clients asking for it,” he said.
And, two years ago, when the first client did call, Talmor devised a course geared specifically for Chinese corporations. In four days, trainees study religious taboos in foreign countries, they learn to give first aid in pressurized circumstances and they practice Krav Maga — an Israeli martial art known for its quick, instinctive strikes and brutal counterattacks.
They also practice being victims. Twenty-four-hour role-playing exercises involve minor safety violations, like having one’s mobile phone stolen, which escalate into kidnappings. Blindfolded trainees are surrounded by distressing noise and physical threats. This part scares some people, Talmor said, noting that grown men — really tall, grown men — have been reduced to tears.
Talmor declined to give the exact number of how many people he had trained so far, but did disclose that his company has trained nearly 2,000 workers for a single client.
Chinese oil giants, like Sinopec and China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), have been looking into personal security training for their employees.
“Safety comes first. In no way do we want profits stained with blood,” wrote Wang Hongtao, director in charge of overseas affairs at CNPC, in an article published in June 2009. CNPC has ongoing projects in 19 high-risk regions.
During the past few years, CNPC worked with security specialists to avoid a kidnapping threat in Nepal, to evacuate its employees amid civil war in Chad and to rescue hostages in Sudan and Nigeria, Wang said.
CNPC sent around 17,000 employees through security training in 2009, according to the company’s press materials.
For now, personal security consulting is still a relatively nascent industry in China and the price tag, at nearly $1,000, can make it a hard sell to many cost-conscious Chinese, Talmor said.
Still, demand has been growing. At the end of July, Talmor’s company launched a new course, geared for small businesses, students and tourists going abroad.
Yang Guang, vice president at security firm Safewall Group in Beijing, said personal security training for workers headed overseas is only going to become more popular, assuming key countries remain unstable.
“If it becomes safe out there, the business would cease to exist,” said Safewall’s Yang. “But if it doesn’t, more companies could start providing this service, even making it the norm.”