'Hostage diplomacy': The case of the Western executive held in China for three years

·4 min read
Richard O'Halloran
Richard O'Halloran

Irish businessman Richard O'Halloran has been held against his will in China for close to three years.

In February 2019 he travelled to Shanghai to try and resolve a dispute between the owner of the Chinese aircraft lessor he worked for - China International Aviation Leasing Service (CALS) - and its investors.

The owner of the company is in jail, and the dispute pre-dates O’Halloran’s employment. But the aviation finance executive was handed an exit ban by Chinese authorities who claim CALS defrauded domestic investors. He says he travelled to China to discuss investors’ complaints and has not been accused of any wrongdoing.

“I felt duty bound, there had been many investors who have been stung, not just in China but all over the place, and I wanted to do the right thing,” he told Irish media last year in his only interview during the saga.

Now, as his three year anniversary looms, O’Halloran’s wife says he is “losing hope” of ever seeing his family again and feels he has been “left to rot”.

Tara O’Halloran has called on Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign minister, to travel to Beijing and demand the immediate release of the 46-year-old father of four.

"We need some action. We are just asking that Simon Coveney go to China and meet face-to-face with the foreign minister or whoever it needs to be. Nothing is working that they have done in the past. We are in a place where we are really desperate,” she says.

Coveney discussed O’Halloran’s confinement with his Chinese counterpart last May, but his reluctance to go further sheds light on the complex relationship many small nations have with the Asian superpower.

Some believe the case highlights a failure among Irish political leaders to challenge Beijing for fear of economic repercussions.

Eoin O’Malley, a politics professor at Dublin City University, says the Irish government’s response “has been weak”.

“Coveney says he raised the issue with the Chinese government but he appears more interested in securing trade for Ireland than he does in solving this issue.”

In January 2021, O’Halloran was told he had permission to leave China before being turned away at the airport. Immigration officers refused to confirm whether it was the courts or police that had taken out the exit ban.

Earlier this month, O’Halloran’s brother David wrote to the Irish foreign minister, saying terms had been finalised between all the relevant parties to resolve the legal dispute with CALS.

“The Chinese court stated that there was a high probability of Richard returning to Ireland for Christmas when he attended a hearing in early November. This was before the conditions for his exit were changed yet again by the court,” it read.

Still, he wasn’t allowed to travel. The brother argued O’Halloran’s case was no longer a legal or commercial dispute but a “human rights” issue.

The case also points to Beijing’s creeping hostility towards Western business executives and its use of exit bans to apply pressure on those caught on the wrong side of a corporate dispute.

In September, Chinese authorities allowed two American siblings to return home, having barred them from leaving the country for three years under the same ban as O’Halloran’s.

Cynthia and Victor Liu claim authorities restricted them from leaving China in an attempt to lure their father back to face fraud charges - a tactic known as “hostage diplomacy”. Their release coincided with US fraud charges being dropped against Meng Wanzhou, a senior Huawei executive, allowing her to leave Canada.

For O’Halloran, his case is beginning to gain momentum in Irish political circles. Charlie Flanagan, a former Irish foreign and justice minister, has called his detention “unjust & unfair” and last week said he must be allowed home to his family in Dublin.

Experts argue the Irish government’s approach to human rights abuses in China, including its brutal treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province, is notably different to its vocal condemnation of other regimes.

Dublin City University’ O’Malley says ministers frequently take a strong stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict but rarely criticise China, adding that it could be more supportive of EU efforts.

Ireland's Department of Foreign Affairs said it was “very actively engaged” in O’Halloran’s case and is providing him with consular assistance.

“The department remains fully committed to this case and will remain so until Mr O’Halloran is permitted to return to Ireland.”

But so far, efforts have not been enough to secure O’Halloran’s release.

The Dublin native told Irish media he speaks to his children daily and was forced to watch them open Christmas presents over Facetime for a third consecutive year last month. His younger children even asked Santa to bring their Dad home.

“It’s not like I’ve been sentenced to a finite period of time. This is open ended. This could go on and on and on,” O’Halloran said.