If you owe someone money in China and kidnap them to get paid, the police are likely to treat the whole thing as a civil matter of "unlawful detention" and stay out of it (especially if the debtor is a foreigner and the lender is Chinese).
Chinese public opinion boggles at foreigners who are outraged when their nationals are kidnapped in debt-collection procedures, and often chalk up such scandal to "nationalism" and a bias against Chinese people.
But there are limits: don't kidnap some rando from a company that owes you money in order to get the boss to pay you and don't kidnap where there are no debts involved.
But the police are also predisposed to see it as none of their business. Public security is broken into two areas: minshi and xingshi. Translated loosely, they can be considered civil and criminal issues, respectively. When it's a financial dispute, rather than a hostage taken for ransom, police generally consider it more of a minshi issue and thus more in need of mediation than law enforcement, if it requires any police input at all. Debt kidnappings aren't the only situation this applies to: Even in fights with quite serious injuries, the police often attempt to negotiate a payoff to the injured party instead of bringing charges.
The theme of the wise official mediating among disputants has long been a staple of Chinese literature. In the modern context, the strangeness of the police's dual role as social mediators and law enforcers has been noted by Fordham University professor Carl Minzner. Minzner attributes it to the authoritarian system's top-down approach to dealing with tensions between citizens and the state and to the Chinese Communist Party's refusal to allow the development of independent legal bodies that could deal with such disputes.
Harris's China Law Blog repeatedly stresses the risks of being taken hostage in China over debts. In many cases, the best move for foreigners facing such circumstances is simply to get out of the country before the thugs reach you.
Hostage Taking Is China's Small-Claims Court
[David Dawson/Foreign Policy]
(Image: USAG- Humphreys, CC-BY)