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Undercover Justice
His year has been a great year for Cheng Ming and his private detective agency.

First is the judicial interpretation from the high court saying that evidence gained by secret videoing or tape recording can be used in court so long as it is not gained by illegal means.

Second came the implementation of the new evidence rule in April which attached more importance to the evidence submitted to the court. If the defendant hasn't sufficient evidence to contradict the facts the plaintiff provides, he will just lose the case. Collecting evidence, difficult in others' eyes, is just the stock-in-trade of private detectives.

Even more encouraging news is that the new trade listing issued by the State Industrial and Commercial Administration has included private detective work.

"It passes a strong signal that the country may gradually open up this forbidden area," said Wu Dong, a lawyer from an M&A law firm.

It seems that a new dawn is on the way for private detective agencies, which have been operating secretly for a decade in the country.

Dangerous and tiresome

Working underground is necessary because of a notice issued by Ministry of Public Security in 1993, forbidding the existence of companies carrying out work of a private detection nature.

But the attraction of the huge market demand was irresistible. Before the promulgation of the new trade listing, hundreds of private detective agencies were operating around the country. They all worked under the guise of "information consulting" or "research" while carrying out the real business of a private detective agency - finding out about extramarital affairs, pre-employment verification, individual background profiles, finding missing friends or relatives, helping companies fight against fake products, etc. The specialized work seems interesting to outsiders but is actually toilsome, hard and even dangerous.

Take "extramarital affairs" for example. Most of the cases Cheng received are where the husbands are having affairs and the injured wives try to find some evidence which they can use to claim compensation from the husband in court.

"Most of these men who betrayed their wives are successful and rich people," Cheng said. "They are smart and have their own cars."

To tail them, the private detective agency must have at least two different vehicles, so that they won't be discovered when tailing after one target. It needs a whole team sometimes to complete one job because the pursuers have to change over from time to time so as not to arouse the suspicions of the target.

To check whether an errant husband is spending whole nights with his mistress in another house, the detectives need to perform long-term surveillance from an inconspicuous location. Sometimes it is in a car or van, and sometimes it may be a shabby shed.

The detectives can't move, even to answer the calls of nature, when intensive surveillance is needed.

"Working all day and all night is just a common thing for us," said Cheng, who has lost around 10 kilograms in the past two years of private detective work.

"As it is against the law for us to break into a house, sometimes we just ask the wives to enter the trysting house and teach her how to collect the evidence there."

On other occasions, the private detectives will dial 110 for the police after finding the rendezvous of the husband and his mistress.

The detectives may also take photos on the streets or at some other public places when they see the husband and the other woman engaged in an intimate act which is against social morality.

"Our photographing skills are superb. Maybe even better than the photographers working for your newspaper," Cheng joked with a smile.

According to Cheng, the evidence collected can be accepted in court as long as it was not collected illegally. That is, the detective are not allowed to use professional spying equipment, such as pin-hole cameras. They also should not break into houses, kidnap or use violence when working.

Yet a single slip may leave them exposed. What happens if the people they are tailing discover them and beat them up?

"Our principle is never to do anything against the law, so we won't fight back even when they are waving fists in front of us," Cheng said.

"Fortunately so far we haven't had any experiences like that."

Of all the customers seeking help from Cheng's company, at least a third arise from extramarital affairs.

"It is a sad thing when we are entrusted with such business, as for each of these cases there is a broken heart left behind," Cheng said.

It reminds him of the time two years ago when he first stepped into the private detective trade. He had been the manager of a State-owned enterprise when his then girl friend betrayed him and entered the embrace of a much richer, married man.

"She hurt me, and also broke a once happy family," he said.

At that time in Southwest China's Sichuan Province, there were already some private detective agencies working secretly to uncover extramarital affairs.

Out of mixed feelings - revenge and justice - Cheng took up the work as a private detective.

"I really wish there weren't so many cases of extramarital affairs, even if that reduced my company's profits," Cheng said.

Tracing fakes

Increasingly, private detectives are hired to help companies nail down sources of the fake products in the market.

Local police have too many other things to do. Often the injured companies have a long wait before the police find out who the violators are. That is why many companies would rather turn to private detectives to uncover the perpetrators behind their losses.

Just a few months ago, Cheng's company received a case of this kind. The enterprise gave Cheng two months to find out the source of fake products illegally using their brand.

After several days' work, the detectives found out that the fake products were from a county in neighbouring Zhejiang Province.

Cheng and a colleague rented a shop near the phoney one and started to sell authentic products from their client's company. They sold them at an even lower price than the retail outlets were selling the fake products for and it wasn't long before their low-priced but authentic goods attracted attention.

They ignored small clients until the big ones started to come. In one week, they hooked five big fish, from whom they finally found out the source of the fake products.

"Sometimes, these people after earning good money from their illegal business, will try to build a good relationship with the local industrial and commercial bureau," Cheng said.

Discovering where the fake products are stored becomes especially important to ensure that the illegal businessmen get their fair punishment.

Many of the private detectives working for Cheng are retirees from law enforcement sectors such as the Public Security Bureau and Procuratorate.

The biggest difference between being a policeman and a private detective is that the latter can only depend on himself, while the police can easily get others to support and co-operate with them.

"Apart from all the physical toil and brainwork, private detectives still have to endure a lot of mental pressure as the job involves finding out the dark things about society," Cheng said.

(China Daily December 20, 2002)

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