By Jonathan Chow
The mysterious detainment of four employees from Ozzie mining giant Rio Tinto on Sunday was finally explained today, when the Chinese government confirmed today that Stern Hu, GM of Rio Tinto’s Shanghai office, and three of his underlings were alleged to have committed espionage and stolen state secrets.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang told the press that the country already had “a vast amount of irrefutable evidence” against the arrested staff to prove that they have “pried and stole state secrets from overseas, gravely harming China’s economic interest and security.”
But even as the official explanation is meted out and Qin Gang insists that the case is an individual one that “should not be exaggerated or even politicized,” it seems that there is something not being said hovering just below the depths.
As the Wall Street Journal points out, “state secrets” is a pretty broad term in China:
Just about any information can be classified as a state secret in China, and even information that is publicly circulated can be withdrawn or later determined to be a “state secret” based on the consequences of disclosure (of relevance to the Rio Tinto case, harming the economic interests of the state and weakening the economic strength of the state are specifically mentioned as possible rationales for retroactive classification of state secrets). Sending information overseas can also carry heavier consequences. One notable instance of this involved the Uighur activist Rebiya Kadeer, who was sentenced to eight years in prison in 2000 for sending Chinese newspaper clippings to her husband in the U.S.
State secrets cases are also subject to less transparency and fewer procedural protections for defendants. Evidence in state secret cases is considered confidential and trials are conducted behind closed doors. In some cases, the defendant’s access to counsel may be limited.
Thickening the plot, a senior executive named Tan Yixin of Chinese steel maker Shougang Corp. was detained for “business crimes relating to the trading of raw materials” today. While it’s unclear whether his arrest (he was taken on his way to work by five or six police vehicles) has anything to do with Stern Hu’s, the detainment of two high end executives for two major companies in the same industry in the same week is a heckuva coincidence.
It doesn’t help suspicions that Rio Tinto is the second largest producer of one of Australia’s primary exports (iron ore) and has been at the center of a rising tension in China-Australia relations. Last month, the mega company backed out of a $19.5 billion USD agreement with Chinalco, a Chinese state owned enterprise, instead cutting a deal with BHP Billiton. China and its media mouthpiece was not pleased.
And according to Reuters, “Chinese and foreign business people have been detained or kidnapped during the course of business disputes as a pressure tactic before. Mainland Chinese who have taken foreign citizenship, like Stern Hu, are particularly vulnerable.
Certain Australian conservatives have already connected the dots, calling BS on Qin Gang’s remarks that this isn’t “political.” The Australian consulate has demanded and only just finally gotten access to Hu.
We guess only time will tell whether Hu is just a pawn in the murky semi-business, semi-political game China plays with all multinational corporations, but whatever happens, it’s a stark reminder of the dangers you can sometimes face dealing with the Eastern giant.