Behind the Scenes With a Local Private Investigator

Map, October 2008

Since Eugene Francois Vidocq opened the first private investigation firm in 1833, private investigators have come to occupy a unique place in society and popular consciousness.  The brilliant and highly skilled yet self-interested, isolated and morally flexible private eye has become staple of Western literature and film, romanticized and clichéd even as the investigators themselves have tried to avoid public notice.

In China, however, private investigation work has only existed since 1994, when the government made the practice professionally legal.  In that time, as the country’s social problem and legal framework have grown more complicated and individuals and companies have been left increasingly on their own to solve disputes, the number of PI firms in the county has grown to over 200.

To learn more about the field of private investigation in China, we interviewed Mr. Guo, manager and chief investigator of the Nanjing branch of Leading Services Superior, one of China’s larger PI companies with branches throughout Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces.

On the day of our interview, we meet Guo in one of many consultation rooms in his office, where he sits hunched over a paper cup of green tea. In his mid forties, short and stocky, he wears a military-style haircut, a faded collared shirt, black slacks and inexpensive black loafers. He was up much of the previous night working on a case, and it shows.  While engaged and attentive, his eyes are rimmed with dark circles and he speaks in low tones and short sentences.

As we learned from our interview, while the work of actual private eyes bears some resemblance to their fictional counterparts, the reality for private eyes is at once more monotonous and dangerous.  What’s more, while there’s a certain universality to the nature of PI work, the advent of the modern Chinese PI and what keeps him occupied has much to say about China’s unique historical moment.

Map: What sorts of cases you have typically have?

PI: Right now, our business is a bit more civil-based, about 60 percent, with about 40 percent being for businesses and corporations.

Map: What do corporate cases typically involve?

PI: Every case has different requirements. PIs can provide companies with information about other companies that would otherwise be inaccessible: an automotive company that wants to know about the fuel injection systems used by rival companies, for example.  For a fee we are able to gather a full range of information about things like competitive proposals and marketing plans… essentially, we can tell our clients why their competition is successful.

Map: What sort of cases typically fall under the civil heading?

PI: Civil cases can involve a lot of things, but they usually involve what we call marriage investigating, marriage consulting and marriage rescue. Many women know their husband is having an affair, but they don’t want a divorce. We can provide “marriage rescue,” such as helping to create a separation between the husband and the third party.  Also we provide psychological help, similar to marriage counselors, in order to help the wife maintain her marriage. All of this is work that we do here.

Map: What steps do clients take when they want to hire your services?

PI: Usually customers call or send us an email first. After the client gives us a rough idea of the case, we will present them with an initial proposal and estimate. We will then arrange a face-to-face interview. We will meet those clients who are very concerned with their privacy at an outside location. Usually, before the client presents too much information to us, they ask to learn more about our company.  If they are satisfied with our company and proposal, we will sign a contract.

Map: You carry out your investigation based on the contracted terms?

PI: We design our plans based on the needs of each case. We don’t have a standard investigation procedure. Our job is not like the assembly line of a factory.

Map: In the West, our conception at least is that private investigators are specialists in some field. What sort of qualifications do you look for when recruiting private eyes?

PI: We usually look for retired military personnel or people with advanced degrees in public security. Society, however, tends to think PI firms have some kind of organized crime affiliation. This simply isn’t true. We’re actually a very honest, professional, standard investigation company.

Map: Are self-defense abilities necessary?

PI: We don’t necessarily have martial arts abilities. Mostly, we rely on our intellect. Sherlock Holmes doesn’t know martial arts, but he has experience and wisdom, which he used to solve many difficult cases. We had an extra-marital case once where two of our investigators stayed in the downstairs of the subject’s apartment for two days, but they weren’t able to take a picture of the subject and his mistress together. So I came up with an idea for the investigators. We asked an older man to knock on the subject’s door, and tell him he was from the neighborhood committee and that he wanted the subject to clean up the garbage in front of his door. Initially, the subject was hesitant to open his door. Likely, he was nervous due to his circumstances. But, when he heard that the man was from the neighborhood committee, he opened his door, at which point an investigator waiting nearby with a camera was able to take a picture.

Map: What other kinds of cases fall under the civil investigation heading?

PI: We also do a lot of liability investigation. These cases mostly involve a debtor who has disappeared, and the creditor has hired us to find him. Other civil cases require us to find missing friends and relatives.

Map: To work effectively on your cases, is it necessary to have connections with entities such as the Public Security Bureau, the Supervision Bureau, or the courts?

PI: Absolutely. Without these relationships we cannot do our work. We need cooperation from all these entities when we search for some information.

Map: Have people ever physically threatened your staff as a result of your investigations?

PI: I always tell our investigators that it’s better to lose a subject than to be discovered. If you lose a subject, you can always follow him or her the next day. But once you are discovered, your investigation is over. If you continue following the subject after you’re discovered, the risk is too great. For example, in Beijing, one investigator was discovered and beaten to death. In situations like this, no one will come to the defense of the investigator. The attacker could always say they thought the investigator was a robber or something.

Map: For corporate cases, is it sometimes necessary to send investigators undercover?

PI: Sometimes, when we do intellectual property right protection cases, it’s necessary. But these cases are difficult and dangerous. For example, once we were hired to investigate an illegal factory. They had very strict security.  They only allowed current and previous employees inside. It was nearly impossible to take videos in their factory. At that time, this company posted an advertisement looking for front line workers. Some of our investigators gained employment and infiltrated the company in this way. We discovered this company was counterfeiting the goods of a very famous foreign company.

Map: Do civil cases ever interfere with individual’s privacy?

PI: Usually we take pictures in public spaces, since taking pictures in private places is illegal. Our clients often ask us to take pictures of couples in bed. We never agree to this.  First of all, these pictures cannot be used as evidence in court. Second, taking these pictures at all is illegal.

Map: Are PIs usually equipped with hidden devices like cameras or microphones?

PI: Yes. We cannot use normal cameras to take pictures of subjects. We definitely need some very advanced equipment. China has very strict laws about this equipment. Even selling these kinds of things is illegal. Actually, private investigation in general is at the fringes of the law. That’s why we refer to our company as a business consulting firm. As the legal representative of our company, I have to know a great deal about the law, so as to avoid putting the company at legal risk.

Map: How are PI’s salaries calculated?

PI: Usually their salaries are composed of a basic salary on top of commission. The average salary is RMB3000 to RMB4000 per month. Commission is six percent. So if we have a RMB120,000 account, and there are three investigators working on this case, each will receive RMB7200 upon successful completion of the case.

Map: Do your investigators work 24 hours a day, seven days a week?

PI: Theoretically, they do. However, when the subjects rest, we tell our PIs to go home and rest too. But, as I said before, they need to capture the right moment. If you know the subject goes to bed at 2 a.m., you can go home at that time. But you never know when he will get up. Is it 6 to 7 a.m. or 11 to 12 a.m.?  So the investigators have to get back to the subject’s apartment very early. This is the difficult part of this job. Even though you don’t work 24 hours a day, you have to be ready at all times.

Map: Do you ever have lower-income clients?

PI: Yes. Earlier this year, we had a missing child case. His parents were divorced, and his grandfather came to us to ask if we could help find him. We didn’t charge him for this, first because he didn’t have enough money and second because we didn’t feel that it was morally right to take his money. We don’t do our job entirely for the sake of profit. While most of our customers are middle or higher income people, we do have lower income clients as well. We can’t refuse to take a case because they don’t have the necessary money. So we will adjust our rates.

Map: Have you ever failed to complete a case?

PI: Absolutely. I’ve been doing this job for a long time, and I’ve met subjects who are very good at evading detection. Some of them have been in the army so they’re very aware of their surroundings. Many people who are aware they are behaving inappropriately and therefore are perhaps being watched change their actions accordingly, such as deliberately taking back roads or round-about routes.

Map: What do you like about your work?

PI: Nonetheless, its work he takes obvious satisfaction from.  “Solving cases is very gratifying to me. I remember a case I had when I first started this work. I went on a stakeout to wait for a subject, and after five or six hours of waiting, he finally arrived. I was so excited. This kind of feeling is difficult to describe.”

Map: What are the downsides?

PI: It’s very challenging and risky. Also, compared to white collar workers, the salary is low. However, unlike white collar workers, who sit in their offices and only use their brains, our job requires us to use our bodies as well.

Map: Is the work as exciting as you imagined before you began?

PI: Sometimes it is, but most of the time it’s very difficult and strenuous.

Map: Has this job negatively affected your opinion about people?

PI: These days, our economy is developing very fast, and there are a lot more temptations.  That’s why you see more moral transgressions and, consequently, investigation cases. I’ve never considered people to be evil. People do bad things because of temporary impulses and the desire for new experiences. I believe that those people who break the bonds of marriage and family will realize their mistakes in time and return to their loved ones.

According to manager Guo, maintaining this distance from the general public eye is essential for the survival of his company.  “In our industry, confidentiality is everything. If we could not maintain confidentiality, it would be very difficult for us to survive in this industry, much less expand.”

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