Foreign mediators make life easier for traders in the 'world's supermarket'
Nepalese Sushil Kumar Agrawal (right), a volunteer mediator of the People's Mediation Committee for Foreign-related Disputes in Yiwu, and committee director Chen Yanjin (center) help to resolve a business dispute. [Photo provided to China Daily]
Raj Kumar Khadka has spent the past nine years handling imports and exports as a foreign trader in Yiwu, Zhejiang province, and now spends two days a month as a volunteer mediator, helping to resolve commercial disputes in the trading hub for small commodities that's been dubbed the world's supermarket.
Khadka, who is from Nepal, wears a blue uniform with a badge showing two hands forming the shape of a heart when he works at the office of the People's Mediation Committee for Foreign-related Disputes in Yiwu.
While it has lost some of its former bustle due to travel restrictions brought in to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, Yiwu remains an important trading center with a sizable population of foreigners.
Before the pandemic, around 550,000 foreigners visited the city each year to buy goods such as clothes, toys and electronic gadgets. In the gigantic Yiwu International Trade Market, it was common to see foreign businessmen checking samples or bargaining over prices with their Chinese counterparts.
The market's turnover reached 450 billion yuan ($70.5 billion) in 2019, but disputes sometimes arise from misunderstandings or delays in payments or deliveries.
Khadka and his 17 colleagues in the mediation office work to de-escalate such conflicts, protect the lawful rights and interests of both parties, and help them settle the disputes.
"I joined the team two years ago, first learning the rules and gaining experience as a translator and then becoming a mediator," said Khadka, whose colleagues come from 16 countries and each speak at least three languages.
Yiwu's justice bureau said the foreign mediation team has resolved 1,062 cases involving 110 million yuan since it was founded in 2013.
"During my work, I've discovered that people with similar cultural and religious backgrounds have an easier time finding common ground for both sides in a conflict, so I asked some of my foreign translators to do mediation and the initiative turned out to be successful," said Chen Yanjin, director of the mediation committee.
"We mediate based on Chinese laws and justice, respect other cultures and ethnicities, and give preference to no one.
"What we do is promote a fair business environment and let people from all over the world feel it's easy and safe to do business here in Yiwu."
Last year, Khadka handled two cases independently, one of which involved a Chinese supplier and an Indian customer. The supplier could not send the shipment at the exact time the customer needed the goods, and that angered the customer, who refused to take delivery.
"After listening to both sides, I knew this was not about money, after all it was only 50,000 yuan, but about their ego," Khadka said. "Both of them were angry in their own world and just wanted to fight each other.
"I urged them to calm down and told them to put themselves in each other's shoes and think about the problem. Finally, the supplier gave some discounts, the customer honored the deal, and they became good friends.
"Being a mediator has helped me learn local laws and regulations, but what is more satisfying for me is that I feel happy while serving the people."
Khadka also serves as a mediator at a police station near his home.
Around 15,000 foreigners live in Yiwu, and many, like Khadka, have participated in the city's social governance.
Gholamhossein Dehghani, from Iran, arrived in China in 2003. In the following years, he set up a trade company in Yiwu, married a Chinese woman and made his name as a foreign laoniangjiu－a trusted peacemaker in the neighborhood.
The Jimingshan residential community where Dehghani lives is home to 1,380 expats from 74 countries and regions. Being able to speak six languages including Chinese, Persian and English, Dehghani became the go-to person when disputes related to foreign affairs occurred in the community.
"I help turn big problems into small ones, and if things are complicated, I teach people how to go through legal procedures," he said, adding that he has handled around 100 disputes, with most of them settled peaceably.
"Living in Yiwu for more than a decade, I've talked to people from different countries, and most of us think the city has made us feel secure and warm, and there's no discrimination against foreigners," Dehghani said.
Sunil Aidasani, an Indian businessman based in Yiwu, agreed with Dehghani.
"The best thing here is security," he said. "If you don't break laws, no one gives you any trouble. I haven't heard of any robberies or burglaries for years."
Dehghani said the local government really listens to people's opinions, and he has often been invited to give suggestions on what the government could do to improve the business environment.
"I have received a lot of help in the past, so I feel that I have a responsibility and want to contribute my efforts in developing the city, making it more inclusive for everyone," he said.