And finally, the British Foreign Office on the Alleged Ningbo Kidnapping.

Of the many pieces of advice that I’ve been given in China, perhaps the most curious was one of the earliest: Namely, if you ever find yourself in a tight spot, don’t count on foreign service officers to get you out of it. Fortunately, I’ve never been in a position where I’ve had to test such advice. But based upon the document that justifies this post, let me just state for the record that – were I ever to get into a tight fix in China – please, lord, don’t let me be a British national.

Here’s the deal …

As has been amply documented on this site: in mid-October, a British national, Anil Srivastav, the chief trader for the British scrap metal firm, Goldarrow, was allegedly abducted by representatives of a state-owned Chinese scrap trading and processing company in Ningbo. For those interested in the details, they can be found here and here.

For the most part, the story as alleged by Goldarrow mostly checks out. But for me, and others who have looked into this matter, one question remains: why did the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office [FCO], and its Shanghai Consulate-General, refuse to intervene in this matter? If Mister Srivastav were abducted, as alleged (and which seems almost certain), why wouldn’t his government do more to aid him?

Several weeks ago I left messages with Liz Hawkins, the London-based FCO employee who’d been – communicating? – with Goldarrow through most of the ordeal. No surprise, Ms. Hawkins didn’t return my calls for comment, and so I was unable to make any kind of assessment of the situation as it involved the British government. But on Friday, via a source close to this matter, I obtained a copy of a November 11 email sent by Ms. Hawkins to V. Sampath, the managing director of Goldarrow Metals. The text of the email is printed below. I won’t pull punches in my assessment, so here goes: In the annals of the British Foreign Service, it may very well stand as the premier example of bureaucratic incompetence and naivete well into this new century. Readers may want to review the details of the alleged Goldarrow incident before reviewing this new text (and those details are available here, here, here, and here).

Typically, I don’t like to insert commentary into a source document. But I’ve made an exception in this case, and my thoughts may be accessed by clicking on the footnotes scattered throughout the text.

From: [Liz Hawkins, British FCO]
Date: 12/11/2008 11:51:54
To: [V.M Sampath, Goldarrow]
Subject: RE: Kidnapping of Anil Srivastav in Ningbo, China

Dear Mr Sampath,

Thank you for your email of 3 November. I am sorry to learn of your continued dissatisfaction. Where a British National is reported to be the subject of any criminality we treat any such report with the utmost urgency. At the same time we have to operate under fairly strict mandates and let the authorities in the host country lead on dealing with any crime. This is the same in the United Kingdom; our authorities would lead on any reported crime, and inform the relevant embassy on actions taken. ((These are the ground rules, and there’s nothing that anybody can do to change them. Nevertheless, it’s one thing to allow the local authorities to lead on dealing with a crime, and it’s another altogether to believe every last thing that they report back to you – especially when the interests of the local law enforcement authorities are tied up with the interests of a state-owned corporation, as is the case in Ningbo. As we’ll soon see, this latter approach is precisely the one taken by Ms. Hawkins, with tragic-comic implications.))

Our British Consulate-General (BCG) Shanghai were rightly very concerned about your report that the incident involving Mr Srivastav constituted a kidnap. We forwarded your concerns to the relevant authorities in Ningbo who expedited a lengthy reply which documents their involvement in the case. ((Okay, keep in mind that the company alleged to have kidnapped Mr. Srivastav is a division of one of Zhejiang Province’s largest state-owned companies. Which is to say, the local law enforcement authorities are – like the company in question – employees of the same government. With this in mind (and China minds, your input on this point is crucial) what are the chances that the local police and their superiors are going to respond with a: “Yes, Ms. Hawkins in London, England. As it happens, we did facilitate the abduction of one of your citizens.”))

The report contains the initial history of the case listing the Chinese companies concern over the quality of the goods supplied.  This is reported as the origins of this unfortunate incident. The report states that Mr Srivastav had travelled to China to inspect the product for himself.  Having inspected the product, Mr Srivastav agreed there was a problem with the product and both he and Mr Xu then went to the Zhaobaoshan hotel to negotiate how this might be resolved.  Later that evening, both parties moved to the Ningbo Boteman.  According to the police report, Mr Meng called Mr Xu the following morning and established that a solution had not been reached. At no point as this stage are their intimations of a kidnap, a very serious allegation indeed, documented. ((Got this? The British FCO is regurgitating the account provided by the Ningbo Police, uncritically, verbatim.))

As no solution was reached Meng then drove to the hotel but discovered that Mr Srivastav had already left. At this point, Mr Meng reported Mr Srivastav to the Criminal Economic Crime Unit of Ningbo Police, detailing the dispute between both parties. The report then goes on to state that Mr Meng found Mr Srivastav at Shanghai Pudong airport and they travelled together to the police station to answer questions about the allegation made by Mr Meng. ((This directly contradicts the account given by the same Mr. Meng, and published in the FT on October 31: “The head of Guanghe, who gave his name as only Meng, said the company staff found Mr. SrivastavNingbo.” This is not a small discrepancy: this is the difference between a CEO of a major state-owned company traveling to Pudong and asking Mr. Srivastav return to Ningbo, and having his staff/thugs “find” Mr. Srivastav at Pudong Airport in the middle of the night. In any event, it is clear that Ms. Hawkins decided to privilege the Ningbo Police account over any other, so it’s little surprise that she’d overlook the account in the FT. Do these people receive any training or briefings on how business is really done in China?))

Mr Meng said Mr Srivastav was then taken to a police station because Guanghe believed that he was guilty of fraud. ((Key point here. If Mr. Srivastav was guilty of fraud, then this could be viewed as a sort of citizen’s arrest. But if, as Ms. Hawkins suggests, he was taken to the police station and guilty of little more than a commercial dispute, then this can only be viewed as an abduction. And one that lasted for four days. Not to beat a dead horse, but: he remained in Ningbo for four days, uncharged, and was released only when the state-owned entity with whom he had a commercial dispute received US$350,000.))

It is important that the FCO remain impartial but it would be disingenuous to not note an important discrepancy in the two accounts here. The police state the journey from the airport was to the police station for Srivastav to answer allegations of an economic crime. At Mr Srivastav’s suggestion, both parties left the police station to continue their discussions at the hotel.  It was at this point that Mr Srivastav’s colleagues contacted the BCG and the police then went to the hotel to follow up on the FCO’s calls to them regarding our concerns for Mr Srivastav’s welfare.

The PSB have concluded in their report that they do not believe that Mr Srivastav’s actions constituted fraud under Chinese law, nor do they view or accept that Mr Meng’s actions constitute an illegal abduction or kidnap. ((This is the real kicker. Mr. Srivastav was never charged with fraud, and he was not allowed to return to the UK until October 21, four days after he initially tried to fly back to the UK – and, then, only after his company forwarded invoices to Mr. Meng’s company in the amount of US$350,000.00. Where I come from, that’s called an abduction, resolved with ransom.))

However, they have stated that if Mr Srivastav can provide additional evidence not previously made known to them, they will consider re-opening their investigation.  If you or Mr Srivastav wish to pursue this matter further, you will need to do so through legal channels and appoint a lawyer to act on your behalf. ((I’m sure the Ningbo Police will be very accommodating.))

If Mr Srivastav wanted to reengage our duty officer over the weekend, he was provided with the necessary contact details to do so. Our role as we have stated throughout, is that of the welfare of the British National concerned. We acted within our mandate when requested to do so, and were on standby if necessary to engage the local law enforcement should that have proved necessary.

Kind regards,
Liz Hawkins

Way to go, Liz Hawkins in London, and the British Consulate-General in Shanghai. Today, with apologies to Keith Olbermann and his detractors (of which I am one), you are The Worst Foreign Service Officers in the World.

15 thoughts on “And finally, the British Foreign Office on the Alleged Ningbo Kidnapping.

  1. Adam.

    uh.. YIKES!

    I have spoken to members of our counsulate, and other consulates before, and their power is not what you think it is.

    But.. to just swallow one side of the story and send a note “we are sorry for your kidnapping… did you do something to deserve it.) is a bit too much.

    We are well past the days where we have our own concessions, but as a tax paying citizen I really hope that should I get kidnapped that more would be done…

    r

  2. This is sickening. The FCO has regurgitated what the Chinese government has been claiming about this incident from the beginning. Shame, shame, shame, shame, shame on them. Makes me wonder if they’ve been infiltrated.

  3. Takeaway message for Chinese local government officials: don’t worry about the Brits, they’ll be believe anything.

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  5. Not surprising in the least. I know of another British national whose son was kidnapped. He received exactly zero help from his government. He contacted a reporter who took his story, and mentioned his case to a personage no less than the British Foreign Secretary herself. The Foreign Secretary washed her hands of the whole affair, you can see the whole report at:

    http://video.news.sky.com/skynews/video/Latest+Video?videoSourceID=1266259&videoCategory=Latest+Video&flashURL=%2Ffeeds%2Fskynews%2Flatest%2Fflash%2Farchive02%2Fchina_170507.flv

    As an American, I expect nothing from my embassy except more pages in my passport. I’ve seen other embassies looking out for their people, Sweden comes to mind.

  6. I sadly agree with Craig, but at least the public attitude and performance of the US consulate in Shanghai has changed somewhat for the better. Years ago a US citizen would be treated like an interloper at the Shanghai consulate and was made to pass through a series of antagonistic Chinese nationals working for the consulate. Now at the very least those at the windows answer questions intelligently and courteously. Still, depend on the consulate for nothing and you won’t be disappointed. Kidnapped for extortion? Better depend on local clout.

  7. This story is horrendous, but honestly, what could the BCG do? They can’t send troops to invade Ningbo and seize Mr Srivastav; China is a sovereign nation with its own laws and justice system. And the British Government probably doesn’t have much authority to force the Ningbo police to prosecute crimes whose existence they don’t acknowledge. At least I wouldn’t want the Chinese Consulate in DC to have the power to force MPD to make arrests of US citizens whose conduct was not viewed favorably. I’m thinking specifically of folks who tend to protest in parks, hand out literature, and do tai chi-type exercises. Given that situation, what sort of letter can they realistically write? “The Ningbo Police tell us X, we don’t believe them, and are powerless to help?” I guess they could have added a section saying “Your complaint was as follows. . .”

  8. The BCG should have addressed their concerns directly to the Foreign Ministry and/or other national authorities in a position to place pressure on Ningbo’s authorities. JT, do you really think that the Chinese Embassy in DC would limit their calls to the DC police if one of their citizens were abducted? Or would they take their concerns directly to State? And what would State do? They’d contact the DC police and tell them not to screw around. They’d be on notice that a less corrupt branch of government was telling them that they should save this kind of behavior for matters between their own citizens. What could the BCG do? Are you frigging serious?

  9. JT, they can make a lot of noise and draw attention to the subject. Other countries’ consulates do that. The British declined to do anything, because the British government cares nothing for its subjects abroad, and values only nation-to-nation relationships. Think about if British subjects had been kidnapped in Bulgaria, for example. The foreign ministry would be harassing the Bulgarians for progress reports and so on. If a consulate wants to apply pressure, they can. If the host government wants to ignore that pressure, then they can do that, too.

    Sending troops to invade Ningbo is hardly the sort of response

  10. I know from personal experience that the US Consulate does try to help its citizens in trouble in China. If there is a report of a kidnapping for example they contact the relevant city or provincial foreign affairs office to demand that they do something. They often try to talk directly to the police but the PSBs have been told not to speak to foreign diplomats – everything must go through the FAOs. But beyond this not much can be done except to complain to the Chinese govt. They can’t send out the Marines. Fact is the police in China often don’t listen to their own govt – they are quasi-mafia themselves. In this case the British may have contacted the Ningbo FAO but they shouldn’t be seen to be taking the Ningbo police’s statements at face value and regurgitating them back to the victim. Most diplomats try to help but sometimes you run into a fool like Hawkins. But don’t forget where the blame lies – on China’s police and injustice system.

  11. Jay;

    We’re not asking to send in the Marines and we obviously know where the blame lies, but the immediate remedy is not the reform of the police and justice system which we cannot effect. As foreign nationals we can only rely on our government’s diplomatic body abroad for help, and the point of the article and our collective experience is that certain nations’ diplomatic body gives little or no help; surely that should be the first item for remedy. In this case the foreign office was not only biased but antagonistic to the interests of its national. Surely you can see that?

  12. Scott,
    No real disagreement but I’d like to hear exactly what you expect foreign consulates to do beyond contacting the relevant FAOs, demanding action, and complaining to the Chinese govt? Fact is in most cases the FAOs offer up lies and excuses. The reality is that foreign govts can’t make China do anything. And China relishes thumbing its nose at foreign consulates. So what are you going to do at that point?

  13. I forgot to mention that my own personal advice is to not do business in China unless you are a multinational with an army of lawyers and some leverage. In China you can absolutely count on being cheated and robbed.

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  15. Once again you’ve let your indignation get the better of your righteousness. It’s fairly certain that there’s some behind-the-scenes collusion going on with the Chinese side, but what makes you so sure that the British-Indian scrap traders are being totally straight with you? Frankly, I wouldn’t trust an Indian scrap dealer farther than I could throw him. I don’t see that the FCO did anything wrong here. Apparently the UK company screwed up the order. The guy was inconvenienced for a few days. Then he got to go home. As far as injustices go, that’s a pretty minor one here in the middle kingdom.

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