With China it’s not all beer and dim sum
The decision by a Shanghai court to sentence Stern Hu to ten years should teach us a lesson about the future of our relationship with China: Australia cannot expect to continue to reap the benefits of Chinese cash without periodically accepting some of its pernicious qualities.
Following the Hu sentence there will no doubt be a temptation to invoke what could be called the “Corby Protocol”, which assumes that whenever an Australian is arrested in a non-Western country they are ipso facto innocent and victims of a corrupt and dictatorial regime.
But in this case it would probably be in our interest to understand that while Hu has become a victim of the workings of the Chinese state and business, he was also very much a product of it. This was a position that up until this point had made him, and by extension Australia, very wealthy.
Stern Hu was the Shanghai head of one of our largest mining companies and was found to have accepted nearly $1 million Australian dollars in bribes. Although he disputes the amount he accepts he took bribes.
Their business environment was one where a level of corruption is the norm. It is also a business environment inextricably linked to the operation of the Chinese state. In turn this is a state which presides over a legal system that is still ultimately answerable to the Communist Party.
Incredibly in this instance the Chinese court had no qualms in stating that the group’s real crime was damaging Chinese steel interests.
“The four have seriously damaged the interests of the Chinese steel enterprises and put those enterprise in an unfavourable place the iron ore negotiations which led to the suspension of the negotiations in 2009,” the court said.
Last night Foreign Minister Stephen Smith was vocal in his criticism of not only the sentence, which he said was tough “on any measure”, but also the handling of the evidence relating to the charge of stealing commercial secrets.
Smith said there were “serious unanswered questions” about what amounted to commercial secrets pointing out that this “may just mean information that is generally available”. This was because this part of the trial was a closed court (with the entire trial closed to foreign journalists incidentally) so we have no idea precisely what the judges considered Hu’s wrongdoing to be.
Smith went on to warn China that the decision could affect the way the business deals with China in the future: “as China emerges into the global economy the international business community need to understand with certainty what the rules are in China.”
But for the Chinese living under the regime it has always been so, it’s just that now they’re starting to apply the same harsh uncertainty to those profiting from the growth of their nation – and why shouldn’t they? What’s so special about us?
How is it we can profit from a booming and often corrupt business culture supported and often owned by a dictatorial regime and then complain about the inconsistency of their jurisprudence? It’s like going to the Mad Hatters tea party for free breakfast every day and then complaining that you ordered it black with one and not white with 14.
But for all his criticism Smith went on to reassure us and the Chinese that he didn’t “believe that the decision that has been made will have “any substantial or indeed any adverse implications for Australia’s bilateral relationship with China.”
Right. Lesson learnt then, just not sure who showed who.
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