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Keeping Someone’s Kid Safely Outside China

Justin Trudeau, looking up at the sky.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Photo by Marvin Lynchard, courtesy the Department of Defense
(DoD News on Flickr).

Being a boss has taught me that each of my employees is someone’s kid.

Usually, those employees are also someone’s sibling, spouse, partner or parent. In other words, they are human beings, with people who love them waiting at home. As long as they work for me, my first duty is to do my best to keep them out of harm’s way.

You may wonder how often physical safety and security comes up in our work as financial planners, but this consideration is not purely hypothetical. Our firm serves clients nationally and internationally, and many of our staff members travel frequently for business. Yet there are places, including entire countries, where I would not send my staff, no matter what the commercial opportunity.

There are also circumstances in which I will adjust business plans in order to keep my employees safe. We serve clients in Brazil and have traveled there regularly to do business for years. However, when Zika was raging there, I kept employees of childbearing age out of the country, regardless of their client relationships. One of the staff members who otherwise could have traveled to Brazil in that time had twins last year; it was a relief to know we did not need to worry about Zika before and after they arrived.

So I address this question to my fellow CEOs and other bosses: How comfortable are you with sending your people to China these days?

Robert Lloyd Schellenberg, a 36-year-old Canadian, was not in China on business when he was arrested on drug trafficking charges; he was visiting China as a tourist, as part of an extended trip through Southeast Asia. But his visit took a horrifying, and now potentially tragic, turn that illustrates why employers should steer clear. Chinese authorities detained Schellenberg in December 2014 and sentenced him to 15 years in prison and a 150,000 yuan ($22,000) fine in November. But prosecutors argued that the initial sentence was too lenient. The timing of a one-day retrial coincided with Beijing’s anger over the arrest in Canada and potential extradition of a senior Huawei Technologies Co. executive. Schellenberg now has been sentenced to death.

Schellenberg’s family is understandably horrified at his apparent use as a pawn in Beijing’s gambit to prevent Ottawa from extraditing Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou to the United States. The family reportedly has not been allowed to see or communicate with Schellenberg since his detention more than four years ago. Donald Clarke, an expert in Chinese law at George Washington University, called the case an example of “hostage diplomacy,” according to The Wall Street Journal.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau strongly condemned the ruling against Schellenberg and his sentencing, saying in a statement, “It is of extreme concern to us as a government – as it should be to all our international friends and allies – that China has chosen to begin to arbitrarily apply the death penalty.”

China’s foreign ministry promptly responded that Trudeau should “stop making such irresponsible remarks.” Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said, “The comments from the Canadian government are full of double standards.” She also commented, evidently referring to Meng, that “The Canadians are the ones who have arbitrarily arrested somebody.” Yet while China has stringently denied that Schellenberg’s re-sentencing is a reaction to Meng’s arrest, the government had previously warned that Canada would face consequences if she was not released.

Schellenberg is not the only Canadian to suffer apparent Chinese retaliation for Meng’s detention. Authorities have also reportedly detained a Canadian business consultant and a former diplomat on suspicion of endangering national security. Neither has been charged. A third Canadian who was detained in December was subsequently released. Following Schellenberg’s death sentence, Canada updated its travel advisory for China, urging its citizens to “exercise a high degree of caution due to the risk of arbitrary enforcement of local laws.”

John Kamm, the executive director of the Dui Hua Foundation, which seeks the release of political prisoners in China, told The Globe and Mail that China had executed at least 19 foreigners for drug crimes between 2009 and 2015. Executions in China are common, including executions for drug offenses, though the government’s opacity makes it hard to know exactly how common they are. However, according to Kamm’s research, no Canadian – or American – has been put to death in modern China.

While Schellenberg would be the first Canadian to be executed in modern China should his sentence be carried out, he would certainly not be the first foreigner. In 2009 China executed a British businessman convicted of smuggling heroin, despite the intervention of British diplomats and then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Colombia’s government also failed in its attempts to stop a 2017 execution after China convicted a 72-year-old Colombian of smuggling cocaine. Even absent the political dimension shaping Schellenberg’s case, China’s draconian treatment of drug offenders and its opaque legal system should be enough to give any traveler pause.

China is a major player in the world economy, so I imagine many bosses and executives have occasion to consider sending their staff there on business. But before making that call, it is crucial to ask: How much are your people worth to you and your company? Is it at least as much as they are worth to their parents?

I have known for years that I am unlikely to travel to China myself, in part due to my vocal criticism of Beijing. I will not ask my staff to travel there in the course of their work, either. The very least I, or any other boss, can do for employees is to keep them out of harm’s way.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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