It is common knowledge in Australia that the Chinese government is very protocol conscious, particularly when it is dealing with officials from other countries. So when Australian Trade Minister Simon Crean arrived in Shanghai and made representations on behalf of Rio Tinto with regard to the arrest of its staff, Australians expected China to send a ministerial level official to meet with Crean. That didn’t happen. Instead, he only had a chance to meet with a mid level provincial CCP member. This gesture is now widely interpreted in Australia as China’s continuing attempt to humiliate Australia, in retaliation against both the Chinalco fallout and the CISA’s inability to secure a sale contract with Rio Tinto. Simon Crean is not only the third most senior minister in Kevin Rudd’s Labor cabinet, he is also a former Labor Party leader and a politician respected by most Australians.
China’s way of snubbing Simon Crean has triggered widespread condemnation in the Australian media. The mood is best captured in this report in The Australian:
Trade Minister Simon Crean has made representations on Hu’s behalf, but was given a mid-level official to deal with. The Chinese seem determined to continue to humiliate Canberra.
The bottom line is clear – if Hu is not released, our relationship with China is shattered and the Rudd government will be profoundly embarrassed and seen to have no influence in Beijing.
According to this report, China’s act of humiliating Australians has been interpreted as a deliberate act of intimidation. The report therefore calls on the broad Australian civil society to demonstrate its shock and anger at China’s crude tactics. Only by doing so would there be a chance that cooler heads in Beijing might see the damage these outrageous actions are doing to China’s reputation internationally, as well as its interests in Australia.
The report also suggests that the Australian Government may need to step up pressure on China through issuing travel warnings to Australian businessmen against the danger of arbitrary arrest. The report says:
There is always a bureaucratic temptation to sacrifice the individual for the sake of stability in any bilateral relationship.
To do so in this case would be to accept China’s right to arbitrarily punish any Australian involved in a business deal that China Inc does not like. It would permanently and radically tilt the playing field against Australia in any future business negotiation if the Australian side is always to labour under the fear of arbitrary imprisonment in China.
If this is the case, then the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade should issue a travel warning pointing out to Australian businessmen that they face the danger of arbitrary arrest and lengthy detention in China if they, their company or even the Australian government displease the Chinese.
At the time of this writing, Stern Hu and his colleagues have not yet been charged. Chinese authorities have yet to release information about the allegations made by their Foreign Affairs spokesman. In the meantime, China’s intelligence agents and police have confiscated all documents and computer equipment at the Rio Tinto Shanghai office. They are biding their time going through all details with a fine comb to find evidence to support their claim. This is not investigation. It is government sanctioned stealing of commercial secrets.
Forbes quoted a Reuter report to say that the probe into Rio Tinto was a part of a new economic management strategy endorsed by President Hu Jintao. This new strategy will see spy and security agencies playing more prominent roles in overseeing economic activities. It’s really alarming (and disturbing) if it’s real.
The Forbes report also shares my concern about how computers were removed from Rio’s Shanghai office. This could potentially exposed Rio’s negotiating strategy and contractual terms with its customers.