At a bicycle-parts factory in the go-go city of Shenzhen, a grim drama began this month when a group of men barged into a factory office and confronted owner Lau Siu-fan.
Still held hours later on January 3, the Hong Kong businessman phoned his wife and said he had been beaten and his office was being looted. Lau told her he had repeatedly called police, though two officers came and left, declaring the affair a "business dispute."
The next afternoon Lau was spotted by a local reporter, still trapped in his office, in tears, and the captors vowed to hold him until he paid millions of Chinese yuan to a scrap-metal vendor.
Since then, the businessman's and his wife's mobile phones have been turned off. Police say they know nothing of the case, and reporters have been turned away each time they attempt to visit the factory.
In the shadows of China's rapid economic ascent, such cases pose a problem for the rich. A wave of kidnappings, extortion and related crimes is rising amid the wheeling and dealing on China's economic frontier.
In the first official data disclosed on kidnapping for ransom, Chinese authorities reported 3,863 abductions in 2004. That is higher than the longtime world leader in kidnapping, Colombia, which recorded 3,000 abductions a year from 1996 to 2003 - though Colombia has only a fraction of China's population. Security analysts suspect the true tally is higher in both countries, because most kidnappings go unreported.
China is joining a booming kidnapping industry that stretches across Central Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.
"Kidnapping is an old business, but in the last 10 years it has exploded," said Tom Clayton, founder of San Diego-based Clayton Consultants, a corporate security firm that handles kidnapping cases for the American International Group, known as AIG. "We don't know where it's going in China. But it looks like the beginning of what we have seen in other countries over the past 25 or 30 years. They begin to take place when circumstances are right, generally meaning a lack of local authority and the money to make it worthwhile."
Companies that track kidnappings say criminal gangs are responsible for most of the world's cases, which generate hundreds of millions of dollars a year in ransom. A smaller share is orchestrated by armed insurgencies, as in Iraq, where on Jan. 7 American Jill Carroll became the 36th journalist abducted in that country since April 2004. An unknown number of other foreigners and Iraqis also have been abducted in Iraq in the past three years, with estimates in the thousands.
The most common targets in China are businessmen, their children and celebrities. In the highest-profile case so far, Chinese sitcom star Wu Ruopu was yanked from his BMW in February 2004 outside a Beijing bar. Kidnappers demanded US$245,000 in ransom before police found and freed him the next day, according to media reports. Shortly after that, authorities arrested nine men. Like many other kidnapping victims, Wu shuns publicity, saying only that he wishes to forget the episode.
China is moving aggressively to punish kidnappers, often by the death penalty. Three of the convicted kidnappers in Wu's case reportedly were executed in September. In total, authorities said that 2,900 cases of kidnapping were "solved" in 2004, but it is unclear whether that means the victim survived, the culprits were caught or there was some other resolution. The government issued an unusual warning last year to the newly rich to beware that kidnappers often kill their victims even when money is paid.
The kidnapping boom - particularly in coastal business capitals - also has spurred a business in security advice, kidnap insurance and bodyguards who offer high-priced services, ranging from former special forces officers disguised as chauffeurs and secretaries to "executive security briefings" on how to avoid kidnapping.
Beijing entrepreneur Cui Fengxian founded Beijing Capital Special Security the day after Wu's kidnapping became public. Today, Cui says he oversees 200 personal guards, offering black-suited and plainclothes staff for movie stars, directors, corporate bigwigs and private schools.
"For instance, if a client needs to carry a large amount of cash ... we can provide a reliable person to do that," said Cui, his office filled with snapshots of him with clients, as well as an imposing variety of swords and animal sculptures.
"The gap between rich and poor is getting bigger, and there will be more problems," he added. "There is a saying in China: You will laugh at those poorer than you and hate those richer than you."
Compared with other developing countries, China remains relatively safe; U.S. State Department travel advice says China "has a fairly low but increasing crime rate." Street crime in most of the country is trivial, though the annual kidnapping-for-ransom tally does not include thousands of mostly rural Chinese women and children criminally trafficked each year for labor or sale.
The rise in kidnappings for cash is a measure of social change in a nation that has long feared that greater freedom and economic growth could bring a breakdown in social stability.
Such abductions were unimaginable 25 years ago, when communism squelched the rise of prominent business owners and made it difficult for criminals to move freely or hold anyone captive. Unpublished statistics obtained by a Hong Kong-based security firm indicate the government recorded only five kidnappings nationwide in 1984 and 29 in 1987.
But opening the window to the free market has created a class of conspicuous consumers and widened gaps between rich and poor. In one case, police searching the apartment of kidnappers in Guangdong province found a list of all BMW owners in the city that appeared to have come from state vehicle registration rolls, said Jack Chu, founder of R.A. Consultants, a Hong Kong-based security firm that has handled kidnapping cases in mainland China.