Indian press are reporting that an Indian trader from Mumbai has gone missing in Yiwu. The city in Zhejiang southwest of Shanghai is an import-export trade hub for small manufacturers of electronics components, and is where the bizarre abduction in January of two Indian businessmen with allegedly unpaid bills caused a diplomatic rumpus between New Delhi and Beijing.
There are few details of the latest incident. The Times of India says the Mumbai trader, whose name is being withheld by Indian diplomats, was seized at a local restaurant on the night of May 19. Two days later the Indian embassy in Beijing issued a warning to Indian businessmen to be careful in their dealings in Yiwu as their “freedom of movement could be curtailed” if they got embroiled in legal disputes with local traders. The advisory prompted a retort from the foreign ministry saying that it would affect “bilateral economic exchanges between the two countries”.
The Hindu newspaper says that “dozens” of foreign businessmen have been held captive by Yiwu traders after business deals encountered problems. They are usually released, the paper says, after outstanding debts are settled. The cases usually aren’t made public. This latest one, if indeed it turns out to be in the same vein, again casts a harsh light on the realities of conducting commerce in China, especially away from the big international cities with their sharp-suited lawyers and their contracts.
Footnote: Forty-five Chinese have been arrested in Nigeria on charges of illegally selling textiles in a Kano market.
The strange case of Shyamsunder Agrawal and Deepak Raheja, the two Indian businessman who have caused a rumpus between Beijing and New Delhi, has taken another odd turn. We wrote about the confused details in January, and have become none the clearer about the truth since, but in short, the two were facing some rough local justice in Yiwu, the electronics components trading town, in connection with some unpaid bills before Indian consulate staff intervened to have them removed to Shanghai, where the case could be sorted out in the courts.
The two have since had their passports returned but are barred from leaving the country until the outstanding debt of $1.6 million is cleared. (They claim it is their employer, who has reportedly absconded to his native Yemen, who is responsible.) The Indian diplomatic service has said it can no longer afford to pay for the hotel. Indian press reports say the pair have been thrown out on the street and have gone on hunger strike, demanding to be repatriated. One report says they have threatened suicide if their demand is not met within a week. Chinese officials are insisting they can’t leave the country until the debt is cleared one way or another, as the Shanghai court has ordered though it has yet to make its final ruling.
There may be no greater import to this case than it shows how the civil legal system, for all its recent improvement, remains ill-equipped to handle a case as messy as this. It also throws a light on the realities of conducting commerce in China, especially away from the bright lights of the big international cities and sharp suits of the lawyers and their contracts. This Bystander would wager, with low knowledge but high confidence, that there wasn’t much paperwork around the original transactions. What has been produced in court, the pair say, they signed later and under duress.
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.