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.Â 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.Â 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.Â Later that evening, both parties moved to the Ningbo Boteman.Â 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.Â 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.Â 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.
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.