Snooping into citizens' personal affairs, an activity once conducted by China's Kafkaesque network of Communist Party police, informants and traditional neighborhood committees, has, like so many other institutions in the country, been pushed in the direction of privatization.
Out of the upheaval of China's massive economic transformation that has set the country on course for full-fledged capitalism, the self-appointed state role of Big Brother is now being subjugated to the rules of the marketplace.
While China is by no means about to mount a private police force, its rapid modernization has pried open the door of opportunity for private eyes.
Rising crime, ranging from serial killings to drug trafficking to human smuggling, has forced China's over-stretched police to relinquish some of its once-formidable Gestapo-like power it used to exert over it citizenry.
Stepping into that policing vacuum are the growing ranks of well-paid gumshoes, who by unofficial estimates have swelled to more than 10,000 full-time Sherlocks.
In ancient China, wealthy traders used to hire the equivalent of today's modern detective agencies to help them transport goods and ensure personal safety.
Today, as China's economy booms but commercial laws remain opaque, fraud remains common and legal recourse remains hamstrung, the need for swindle-preventing information is paving the way for a renaissance of investigative firms.
"There is lots of demand in the investigation market, and we have plenty of room to develop, especially after China's entrance into the World Trade Organization," said Long Hao, general manager of Shanghai Zhiyuan Investigation, an outfit that focuses on corporate clients.
"Lots of foreign companies are rushing into China, and they are eager for the detailed information about China -- about their joint venture partners, their investment environment."
Corporate reconnaissance, insurance fraud, smuggling and kidnapping are all cases that China's estimated 1,800 private-investigator firms have been called upon to investigate.
"Sometimes the government's strength is not equal to its ability when it comes to the protection of intellectual property and fighting smuggling," said Zheng Yi, assistant to the chairman of the China Investigation Alliance, a quasi-regulatory body of Chinese investigation companies.
"The folk in these investigation companies are badly needed in these kinds of situations, and they contribute a lot to retrieving economic losses," he said.
Wearing dark sunglasses and incessantly looking around as if somebody might suddenly attack from behind, Sun Ping, a former Public Security Bureau (PSB) officer, said the work can be risky.
"Dangerous enough to make you hesitate and even hold back. You are [often] facing a group of desperados," says the 40-year-old former cop now working for one of China's more well-known agencies, Kedun Detectives in northern Liaoning province.
But the potential risks did not deter the 1.8m Sherlock Holmes fan from quitting his job at the PSB 10 years ago.
"I was obsessed with the idea of being a detective," he said.
Despite a very murky legal status, some 1,000 small private-eye outfits have sprouted up around the country in the previous two years or so, according to unofficial statistics.
Sleuth firms were banned only in name by the central government in 1993, after 39-year-old detective Huang Lirong was beaten to death by the owner of the herbal medicine shop he was investigating, according to state media.
Agencies then won greater legal status after a 2002 court ruling, although in reality hawkshaws continued to ply their trade as "consultants."
"It's legal to run an investigation company, as Chinese law doesn't explicitly forbid it," Zhang said.
Like some of his more disreputable counterparts in the West, Zhang spends a significant amount of time videotaping cheating spouses, which according to Chinese law is a legal means of proving infidelity.
To help women take advantage of a recent law that allows women filing for divorce to win greater financial compensation if husbands are found cheating, the Chengdu Debang Investigation company, employing 16 female investigators, opened last week in southwestern Sichuan province.
"More and more women are suffering from unfair treatment from their husbands ... that's why the center was opened," investigator Liu Li said by telephone from Chengdu.
"It's hard to imagine that there are so many husbands who have extramarital wives," she said.
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