About a year ago, I did a post, entitled, “China Hostage Situation. Now IS A Good Time To Pay Your Debts.” It is time I revisit it.

That post dealt with an email I had received from a trusted reader setting forth the following scenario:

Consumer product company had a rep office – staffed with people with US passports. Company had financial problems and needed to file for bankruptcy. The company sent one of their executives to China to advise their suppliers that they were declaring bankruptcy and would be unable at this point to pay their outstanding balances.

As you can imagine, the Chinese suppliers did not take this well, and they stormed the rep office and are now holding the US citizens hostage – literally. Its been days now -and neither the police nor the embassy will help to extract the people.
The whole thing was obviously not handled properly from the start – but this has turned ugly pretty quickly. Each factory is mainland owned.

I’ll let you know how this turns out – I’m not involved – just hearing most of this second-hand.

I hope to write a happy ending to this story when/if it resolves itself in a safe way that protects both the US people as well as the suppliers – but I am not so sure it will be.

Have you encountered similar experiences?

I responded by saying that my firm has been involved in similar situations countless times (at least a half dozen around the world) and that had we been retained on this one, “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.”

I then went on and discussed a somewhat similar situation my firm had handled and how I had written on that in a post, entitled, “China, We Have A Problem. A Mostly True Story. The key takeaway from that post was the need to get everyone out of town. The situation in that post was as follows:

Young Chinese Child falls from a window in a room in which an American employee of our client is one of the few adults. Child is very badly hurt. Very badly. It now appears his injuries will probably not be permanent, but he also may be in recovery for a year. His medical expenses by US standards were fairly low, but they are astronomical by Chinese standards, particularly for this less than large city. A day later, the parents of the child come with a lawyer to tell this employee that they want six figures (in US dollars, not RMB) from him and from his employer for the injuries that have befallen their child. They also go to the police and make the same request of this employee and his American employer.

The parents make clear to the employee that many in the town are behind them and that things will get much worse if payment is not received. The employer calls us and we immediately spring into action. We determine that the police do not seem to be buying into the parents story of guilt and they have not told this employee or any other employee of our client that they must remain in town or in China as either witnesses or suspects. We learn that our client is not terribly happy with its joint venture partner in this town and that it has no problem with taking its employees out of there and sending them home to sit this whole thing out. Though they feel terrible about the injuries that have befallen the kid, they do not consider themselves responsible. Our research of the facts and the law and our meetings with a cadre of Chinese lawyers we trust all indicate our client is not liable. However, as everyone who has ever been involved in litigation anywhere in the world knows, not being liable and not being subject to an expensive and time consuming lawsuit are two entirely different and only tangentially connected things.

We determine the best course of action is to get the employees out of this town as quickly as possible and on their way back to the United States. We figure that getting them out will change the leverage game entirely, and it does. The employees leave and the settlement claim by the parents immediately plunges. Now we can talk with all parties (the child, the joint venture partner who actually owns and maintains the building from which the child fell) from afar, pretty much stripped of any imminent threats. We agree to pay the parents something towards the medical bills and we (fairly publicly) ask that instead of the Chinese joint venture partner paying our client what it owes, that it instead pay all of that to the family of the injured child. Agreements are signed on all of this and we move on.

And yes, before anyone accuses me of this, I will come right out and admit it. The point of this article is that it pays to bring your lawyers in early in a problem, rather than late. Early is better for the attorneys too, but only because many times when it is too late there is nothing the attorney can do (or charge for) beyond saying, “sorry.”

Many years ago, I had a 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. The company CEO 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 to do so. That being the case, we decided the best approach would be for my client to sue the Vietnamese company in US federal 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 my client’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 really 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 later heard through the grapevine that the Vietnamese company had actually been intimidated into inaction by our lawsuit.

I have written in the past, in a post entitled, “Owe Money To A Chinese Company? No Need To Pay, on how foreign companies need not worry much about Chinese companies pursuing them overseas for unpaid debt. The gist of the post was that if you need to prioritize who to pay, you should put your Chinese creditors last. Even so, I stressed that this equation applies only if you do not have a “real presence” in China:

This is not to say, however, that foreign companies that do not pay may not face repercussions other than a law suit. For example, if you are a foreign company with a real presence in China, not paying a Chinese company might end up causing you real problems in China and you must consider this before choosing not to pay. Just by way of example, we represent a large Chinese manufacturer in an industry where there are only around five companies capable of manufacturing this particular product. Our Chinese client is owed millions by a US company and that US company figured it would not need to pay. What this US company did not figure was that our client would alert the other manufacturers of the non-payment and now none of those manufacturers will make product for this US company either. Once the US company started running out of product, it started paying our client again. On the other hand, if you have but a small presence in China and you can switch your manufacturing over to some other country….

I am bringing all of this up now after having read an excellent Chinese Law Prof post, entitled, “Debt Hostages.” That post is on how kidnappings in an effort to collect on a debt are illegal in China per the written law, but the police often look the other way:

When is kidnapping not kidnapping? Apparently when it’s for the purpose of getting a legitimate debt paid. This, at least, seems to be the social understanding of kidnapping in China, and there’s even legal support for it (the law calls it unlawful detention in that case). The latest case is reported in the Dongguan Times: a couple can’t pay the hospital bill for the wife’s delivery of a baby, so the hospital is holding the baby hostage until the parents pay up. They’ve had the baby for over 100 days so far. One amazing thing about it is that this is apparently a government-run hospital, and the hostage-takers have even held a press conference to justify their actions (apparently they felt the father had not been “sincere” in his efforts to pay). The other amazing thing about it (to me) is that this is seen as relatively acceptable. The newspaper report uses quotation marks around the word “hostage,” as if the baby somehow is not really a hostage. And the most a local lawyer can bring himself to call this is “inappropriate.”

The post goes on to note how taking debt hostages just isn’t that big a deal in China and the police even sometimes assist:

I’ve been seeing reports of creditors taking debt hostages for years, and they are always similar in key points: the creditor keeps a human being in forcible detention and demands payment of a debt as a condition for release. What’s more, the hostage-taking and the identity of the kidnapper are not secret; that would defeat the whole purpose. And finally, the police do nothing. They think of it as a civil dispute having nothing to do with them. For example, back in 1992 I read of a case where a jilted suitor took a woman’s baby as hostage for the return of over 1,000 yuan in gifts. The police didn’t immediately arrest this known kidnapper; instead, the go-between, the village committee, and “judicial departments” tried for five months to persuade him to return the child. Only then did they finally give up and arrest him.

Actually, I was wrong to say the police do nothing – sometimes they actively assist in taking debt hostages. In a book entitled One Hundred Strategies for Using Law to Clear Up Debts (运用法律手段清债百策), the writer mentions as an aside that a plaintiff trying to collect a debt asked the police and the procuracy to assist. They helpfully detained three people from the defendant organization for up to eight months, but were unsuccessful in collecting.

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.

So what are the lessons from all this

  • If you are in a debt dispute with a Chinese company, think about not going to China at all.
  • 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.
  • Consider preemptively suing the alleged creditor somewhere (preferably in US Federal Court) so that you can very plausibly claim that you have been seized and held hostage 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.

Be careful out there…..

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Dan Harris

I am a founder of Harris Bricken, an international law firm with lawyers in Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, China and Spain.

I mostly represent companies doing business in emerging market countries. It has taken me many years to build my network and it takes constant communication and travel to maintain it. My work has been as varied as securing the release of two improperly held helicopters in Papua New Guinea, setting up a legal framework to move slag from Canada to Poland’s interior, overseeing hundreds of litigation and arbitration matters in Korea, helping someone avoid terrorism charges in Japan, and seizing fish product in China to collect on a debt.

I was named as one of only three Washington State Amazing Lawyers in International Law, I am AV rated by Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory (its highest rating), I am rated 10.0 by AVVO.com (its highest rating), and I am a SuperLawyer.

I am a frequent writer and public speaker on doing business in Asia and I constantly travel between the United States and Asia. I most commonly speak on China law issues and I am the lead writer of the award winning China Law Blog (www.chinalawblog.com). Forbes Magazine, Fortune Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, Investors Business Daily, Business Week, The National Law Journal, The Washington Post, The ABA Journal, The Economist, Newsweek, NPR, The New York Times and Inside Counsel have all interviewed me regarding various aspects of my international law practice.

I am licensed in Washington, Illinois, and Alaska.

In tandem with the international law team at my firm, I focus on setting up/registering companies overseas (via WFOEs, Rep Offices or Joint Ventures), drafting international contracts (NDAs, OEM Agreements, licensing, distribution, etc.), protecting IP (trademarks, trade secrets, copyrights and patents), and overseeing M&A transactions.