China's Newest Status Symbol: Bodyguards

Louis Vuitton? Lamborghini? So passé. China's wealthiest now use armed security to flaunt their social status.

If you can't even build private villas on top of apartment towers in China anymore, how can you distinguish yourself from the huddled masses? Former Chinese soldier Chen Yongqing has an answer. Bodyguards.

He's built what he says is China's first ever professional academy for bodyguard training, turning mostly former soldiers, but really anybody tough enough, into personal protectors for those that can afford it.

Chen provides one of his trained protectors for $82,400 a year. His client base, which initially consisted of celebrities, is now mostly wealthy entrepreneurs, a trend he thinks has to do with bodyguards as "status symbol." 

With a growing disdain for China's flamboyantly rich, it may also be necessary for some. One of Chen's clients tells Reuters that he decided he needed a bodyguard after a friend was kidnapped and killed, adding, "society is not stable nowadays." He may not the be the only one who feels that way. Chen tells Reuters that he expects his company's revenues to reach $16.5 million by 2018 and is hoping to have it traded on the stock market. 

If personal bodyguards do become the hot new luxury accessory in 2014, there is perhaps one noble silver lining; Chen says retired soldiers in China often end up taking low-paying security guard work, or worse, falling into a life of crime. "The army is very grateful for this kind of arrangement we offer," he says.

Below, photographer Jason Lee follows around some of China's bodyguards-in-training as well as an actual one already assigned a family to protect: 

Trainees practice helping their employer escape into a car at a shooting training field managed by the military during the Tianjiao Special Guard/Security Consultant training on the outskirts of Beijing December 14, 2013. (REUTERS/Jason Lee) 
An instructor hits a trainee with a replica 95 semi-automatic rifle during training at the Tianjiao Special Guard/Security Consultant training camp on the outskirts of Beijing December 11, 2013. (REUTERS/Jason Lee) 
Students holding replica 95 semi-automatic rifles practice protecting their employers at a shooting training field managed by the military during Tianjiao Special Guard/Security Consultant training on the outskirts of Beijing December 14, 2013. (REUTERS/Jason Lee) 
Students run over the bodies of fellow trainees at the Tianjiao Special Guard/Security Consultant training camp on the outskirts of Beijing December 11, 2013. (REUTERS/Jason Lee) 
Student Ding Kun stands guard in a villa during field training for Tianjiao Special Guard/Security Consultant on the outskirts of Beijing December 12, 2013. (REUTERS/Jason Lee) 
Bodyguard Han, who was hired from Tianjiao Special Guard/Security Consultant, checks his earphone as his employer Zhang prepares to leave home on the outskirts of Beijing December 15, 2013. (REUTERS/Jason Lee)
Bodyguards Han and Wang, who were hired from Tianjiao Special Guard/Security Consultant, watch their employer Zhang and his wife play with their three-year-old son as they guard the family on the outskirts of Beijing December 14, 2013. (REUTERS/Jason Lee)

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