This Bystander doesn’t quite know what to make of the strange case of Shyamsunder Agrawal and Deepak Raheja, but the two Indian businessman have caused a rumpus between Beijing and New Delhi.
Agrawal and Raheja were doing business in Yiwu, a city in Zhejiang southwest of Shanghai which is a big import-export trade hub for small manufactures. As best as we can tell they were attempting to leave town last month with unpaid debts running in to the millions of yuan. Whether the debts were theirs or those of their employer, as they claim, is unclear. But they were seized by local traders — they say kidnapped — and physically mistreated — they say tortured. An Indian consular official who had gone to Yiwu to sort the matter out was roughed up and fainted in a local court, allegedly after being denied medicine to treat his diabetes (an allegation denied by the foreign ministry in a legalistic statement that said China strictly abided by the Vienna Convention on the treatment of consular officials). Higher authorities eventually intervened, put the Indians up in a local hotel and then moved them to Shanghai to recover from their injuries after a large crowd surrounded the hotel. Five of the traders involved are to be prosecuted.
All, seemingly, an unfortunate if ugly incident, peculiar to itself and handled–or mishandled–as the circumstances warranted. Yet it produced an official and public lambasting of Indian traders operating in China and an equally forthright repost from India denigrating China’s legal system and advising its nationals to boycott Yiwu.
The spat has risen to a level where foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei was moved to say this week, “China hopes that the Indian side can positively educate and guide the country’s people doing business in China to abide by Chinese laws and regulations, practise honesty and trustworthiness and operate legally.” India’s retort: “Based on experience, there is no guarantee that legal remedies will be readily available. In case of disputes arising, experience suggests that there is inadequate protection for safety of persons.”
We know nothing of the original circumstances of this case beyond what we have read in press reports. This may all blow over, but, rightly or wrongly, it will confirm a lot of popular conceptions around the world about how much of China still works away from the big, international cities. Our man in Delhi tells us this case has touched a popular anti-Chinese nerve in India and triggered calls for a boycott of Chinese imports–though we imagine that if the businessmen and diplomat had been American, European or Australian there would have been much the same popular outrage in their respective countries. It also shows how much work Beijing still has to do in projecting China’s soft power.