The mainstream media has given massive coverage to workers in China holding Chip Starnes, the president of an American company, hostage for alleged non-payment of wages.  Just as we usually do whenever a hostage taking hits the press, we ran our own blog post, The Single Best Way To Avoid Being Taken Hostage In China, setting out how to avoid getting yourself into just such a situation.  And just as we always do, we link back to all of our prior posts on the subject, to let everyone know that “we told you so.”

But how common are these foreigners being taken hostage situations and how worried should you be?  I was called by three reporters yesterday asking me the commonality question.  I told all of them the same thing, which was essentially as follows:

We learn of a foreigner getting held hostage in China probably once a month.  We learn about this from the media (as in the case of Chip Starnes), from spouses and co-workers calling us to see what we can do, and from readers who simply email us.  My law firm has worked on a handful of these cases over the last five years.  They really are not all that complicated in that one almost never has any choice but to negotiate.  We have used Chinese lawyers to try to get the police to end the stand-off, but that has never worked. Heck, in at least two of the cases we have handled, the police were actually assisting.

The common theme in every hostage taking we have handled (and I think of which I am aware) is money; money allegedly owed for a breach of contract, for wages, or for a personal injury. But the person with whom you really should be talking is my friend in Shanghai at an international risk consultancy company because I know that his company constantly handles China hostage situations.

As for whether these hostage takings in China are getting more or less common, my answer is yes and no.  How’s that for a lawyer answer?  I do not think they are getting either less or more common in the sense that they are either increasing or tapering off due to societal or legal or cultural reasons. Instead,  I think that they are starting on a new increase and I expect that they will continue to increase as China’s economy slows.  As I mentioned earlier, these hostage situations stem from money allegedly owed and now that China’s economy is in a downturn, we can expect there to be more situations where Chinese companies and individuals believe they are owed money and more situations where Chinese companies and individuals will feel compelled to take things into their own hands to get paid. With this we will no doubt see more hostage situations.

Does this sort of thing happen outside China and as much?  I don’t know enough to make comparisons, but I assume this sort of thing goes on in most emerging market countries.  I know it has happened in Vietnam and I know it has happened in Russia, where someone I know was held upside down out a third floor window until he agreed to pay a dubious debt.  So yes, it definitely happens outside of China but I just cannot quantify it.

So what is the answer then about the numbers?  Who really knows?  But what I find so interesting is the initial response my China risk consultancy friend gave by email to the first reporter that contacted him (I was cc’ed):

We work on several cases of unlawful detention like this per month (and, depending on the month, sometimes several per week) … this kind of thing is that prominent in China these days.

I look forward to seeing the articles.

In the meantime though, how worried should you be?  Not that worried. And here is why.

First off, not a single client of my firm has ever been involved in a China hostage situation.  Every time we have been called in to assist on one, it is for a new client. And much of the time, assisting consisted of little more than telling the company that they probably would be better off paying the USD $10,000 claimed, as opposed to paying my law firm to try to contest the amount owed while their employee indefinitely remains guarded in an office by three men or in jail for an indefinite stretch.  But the real point is that all have avoided this problem and the reason they all have avoided it is because they simply do not go to China when there is that risk.

Just the other day, a client of ours called us while walking down the street in a smaller Chinese city.  He told us that he had gone over there to look into what his company should do now that one of its suppliers had just shut down.  During the conversation we learned that the Chinese company had shut down owing its employees all kinds of money and our client was calling us to discuss our assisting in his company possibly buying the factory.  We quickly told him to leave town.  Now.  We explained how if he went to the factory and explained who he was, the workers might well kidnap him.  We have dealt with this exact situation.

Foreign company buys product from Chinese company.  Chinese company shuts down and foreign company goes to Chinese factory to see what is going on and to see if its already paid for (or not) products may be sitting in inventory.  Chinese workers learn of the foreigner in their midst and grab him or her (it is almost always a “him” but I am aware of at least two cases involving a “her”) and demand that the foreign company pay the outstanding wages. The foreigner explains how they too have been hurt by the shutdown and they certainly do not owe anyone in China any wages.  The Chinese workers see things very differently.  Their explanation is that they worked hard to make product for the foreigner and the foreigner got the product and the workers never got paid and so now the foreigner needs to pay the workers and if it does so, he or she will be freed and they can even leave with their product.  The fact that the foreign company already paid once for the product is simply irrelevant.

Anyway, our client left safely.

Not only are these hostage situations generally preventable, but (and I know this is only small solace) these situations in China do not typically involve violence in that the person taken hostage is usually not beaten nor killed.  I am not saying violence never happens, but I am saying that I am not aware of an instance where it did.  Should you be so worried about being taken hostage in China that you do not try to conduct business there?  No.  Should you at least consider the possibility of a hostage situation.  Yes, you should at the first sign of any sort of potential dispute.

What do you think?

UPDATE:  One of the articles for which I was interviewed just came out and I was provided a copy of it.  This article was written by Leslie Pappas of Bloomberg BNA.  I was provided with a pdf of the article, but it is hidden beyond a paywall.  I wanted though to highlight the portion of this article quoting my Shanghai risk consultancy friend, who I can now reveal to have been Kent Kedl of Control Risks.  Kent highlighted the commonality of these China hostage situations and the benefits of thinking and planning before acting when a hostage situation is possible:

The commercial element of the Starnes case is “typical” of other hostage situations in China, which are increasing as the economy slows, according to Kent D. Kedl, the Shanghai-based managing director for Greater China and North Asia for Control Risks, a global risk consultancy based in London. ”

“We work on several cases of unlawful detention like this per month — and, depending on the month, sometimes several per week,” Kedl told BNA in a telephone interview June 26. Unlike countries such as Mexico and Nigeria, it is extremely rare in China for a company executive to be kidnapped and held for ransom, Kedl said. In China, cases usually arise because of a commercial dispute, which may involve a company’s employees, distributors, suppliers, or other affiliates. “It’s someone who gets upset and doesn’t know what to do,” Kedl said.

Control Risks has seen a “sharp increase” in hostage situations in China in the past two years, Kedl said, and has seen an increase in threats and actions against company management and foreigners. Kedl attributes the change in part to China’s slowing economy, as companies reassess their businesses in China and in some cases start to restructure–news that often comes as “a shock” to workers. Restructuring “is an anathema to most Chinese employees,” said Kedl. “It’s been nothing but growth for the past 10 years. . . . In China, business hasn’t come and gone. It has only come.”

Companies need to think through all aspects of a downsizing or restructuring, including the compensation strategy, the communications strategy, and relationships with local officials before they undertake a restructuring, Kedl said: “It is the company’s responsibility to think through what they’re doing and think through what could happen.”

I agree.

A few weeks ago, a reader e-mailed me with an article regarding the jailing in Shanghai of California businessman Brian Horowitz over a debt he (his company?) allegedly owed a Chinese company. I have been assiduously following the case in the press for many reasons. First, cases like this could prove very important to my firm’s clients. Second, I am convinced my law firm has handled as many (or more) of these cases (around the world) as any other firm. Third, the “facts” in this case, at least as conveyed by the media, have remained very sketchy and I am not fully prepared to believe them.

Let me explain.

According to yesterday’s Los Angeles Times article on the case, the story goes as follows:

An Orange County businessman who was prohibited from leaving China for nearly two weeks because of a contract dispute with a Chinese supplier has negotiated a settlement and returned to the United States.

Brian Horowitz, 46, of Mission Viejo, said Chinese government officials refused to let him leave the country until he paid the Chinese firm $250,000 to resolve a civil lawsuit the company had filed against him. He said he arrived home Jan. 18 after his wife wired the funds to China.

Horowitz said he was stopped at Shanghai Pudong International Airport on Jan. 6 and told that he couldn’t board an American Airlines flight to the United States until the case was resolved. Chinese law permits its immigration officials to deny exit to foreigners with pending lawsuits.

The supplier, Fuzhou Trading Co., was seeking payment for a shipment of blenders that Horowitz’s company, On the Edge Marketing Inc., sold briefly in the U.S., Horowitz said. The Chinese firm’s owner demanded $250,000 to settle the contract dispute before he would direct the judge to let him leave, Horowitz said.

The dispute involved Horowitz’s 2007 purchase of 3,000 gasoline-powered blenders, which were marketed to tailgaters and others who wanted to blend icy drinks without a power source. Horowitz said the blenders did not meet U.S. air quality standards, as the contract required. As a result, the California Air Resources Board fined Horowitz’s company $240,000 in 2009 and ordered him to pull the blenders from stores.

Horowitz said the Chinese company agreed to write off Horowitz’s balance of more than $300,000 because of the fine and recall. But the company alleged in a lawsuit filed in China that Horowitz had failed to make good on his debt. Officials with Fuzhou Trading could not be reached for comment.

Horowitz said he did not learn of the lawsuit until he was stopped at the airport. But experts in Chinese law said it would be highly unusual for the country to enforce a lawsuit without proof that it had been served on all parties.

Horowitz’s take on the case is as follows:

“I’m very relieved to be home,” Horowitz said. “I’m hoping my ordeal helps other businessmen who do business in China to be educated about how to protect yourself.”

Okay, but how? And what really happened here?

We have written on this topic countless times. In “China Hostage Situation. Now IS A Good Time To Pay Your Debts,” we wrote of a U.S. company that had sent one of its executives to China to announce that it would be closing down its China entity, declaring bankruptcy, and not paying its debts. The company’s Chinese suppliers then held this executive hostage.

I wrote of how I could have seen this coming a mile away and of measures to take to avoid this sort of thing:

But if we had been retained, our advice would have been so different that I would like to think things would have never reached this point. We would have told this company to get ALL of its personnel out of the country before letting suppliers know (from far far away) that you had just filed for bankruptcy and that payment would be slow, at best.

We did have a client quite recently in a similar situation, which we wrote about in our post, “China, We Have A Problem. A Mostly True Story.” The key takeaway from that post is that the very first thing we emphasized was the need to get everyone out of town.

Many years ago, I had a similar situation where our client was alleged to owe money to a Vietnamese company. The Vietnamese company had shipped product to our client which we contended was defective and for which my client refused to pay. My client absolutely had to go to Vietnam to meet with other clients and he and I were both very concerned about what might happen to him there. My advice was that he not go, but he insisted that he had too. That being the case, we decided the best approach would be for my client to sue the Vietnamese company in a US court, alleging the Vietnamese company owed my client money for defective product. Our thinking was this might help insulate the client from problems in Vietnam. If the Vietnamese company tried to have my client imprisoned for his company’s alleged debt, we would at least be able to point out that there was an ongoing dispute between the two companies and that the Vietnamese company was seeking to act against my client in Vietnam not to collect on an unpaid debt, but in retaliation for my client having sued. My client went to Vietnam without incident and a few months later we were able to settle all claims. We heard through the grapevine that the Vietnamese company had actually been intimidated into inaction by our lawsuit.

Not so long ago, I wrote a post, entitled, “How Not To Get Kidnapped In China.” In that post, I talked of a recent “hostage” case we had resolved through negotiations:

Ten years ago, it was not at all uncommon for Chinese authorities to seize passports of foreigners involved in civil disputes there, but when Beijing made clear it did not approve of such actions, those incidents pretty much ceased. Kidnappings are, in some ways, more difficult to stop in that the act is sometimes less clear cut. Not that long ago, we had a client who was taken to a decent hotel, put in a room, and told that he would not be able to leave unless and until his company paid a contested (by us anyway) $60,000 debt. Negotiations reduced the debt, our client paid it, and left the country, never to return.

I then set out the lessons to be learned:

1. If you are in a debt dispute with a Chinese company, think about not going to China at all.

2. If you must go to China, think about using a bodyguard or two and think very carefully about where you stay and where you go. Most importantly, be very careful with whom you meet.

3. Consider preemptively suing the alleged creditor somewhere so that you can very plausibly claim that you have been seized not because you owe a debt, but out of retaliation for having sued someone. If you are going to sue, carry proof of your lawsuit with you at all times while you are in China.

So where did Horowitz appear to have gone so wrong? First, he says that he reached an agreement with the Chinese company: “Horowitz said the Chinese company agreed to write off Horowitz’s balance of more than $300,000 because of the fine and recall.”  If Horowitz did reach such an agreement, he should have memorialized it in writing, preferably in Chinese, and he should have had a copy of that agreement readily accessible each time he got on a plane to China. Oral (and to a large extent, e-mail) agreements in China are not worth the paper they are not printed on.

Second, I too really do not understand how it is that Horowitz (or his company) could have been sued in China, could have had a judgment entered, and never received any notice of the lawsuit? I am NOT saying this is what happened to Mr. Horowitz, because I do not know what happened to Mr. Horowitz, but I have to wonder if maybe the lawsuit and the judgment were against one of his companies with which he no longer had any concerns and it just never occurred to him that the company debt might be taken so “personally.”

I say this because we have been involved in at least two cases where this was the case. U.S. company owes money to Chinese company. U.S. company ceases to do business and so its key figures assume the issue is resolved in that the company has no assets to pay any debt.  They then get on a plane to a foreign country (one was a China case, the other was a Russia case) and they both get seized and “held hostage” until we negotiate out their release. They wanted us to argue that they personally did not owe the debt; their companies did. Our response was to tell them “that would be an excellent argument if we had the luxury of filing court briefs and waiting months for a judge’s decision, but our goal here is to get you released as quickly as possible.”

We deal with this issue in its nascent stages all the time when we work with our clients to shut down their Chinese entities (which for some reason has been happening like crazy of late). We always instruct our clients never to reveal that they will be shutting down their China operations while anyone from the home office is in China. We also tell them that if they or their company ever wish to return to China, they should pay off all their debts and usually the best way to do that is to announce from outside of China the plan to gradually shut down the China office and then, using that as leverage, negotiate down all of the debts. We always stress that once a reduced debt is agreed upon, there should be a written agreement on that and there should be proof of payment on that agreement as well.

All of this is necessary if you want to formally close your China entity, which is, in turn, necessary, if you want to be able to return.

What are you seeing out there?

Enhanced by Zemanta