"One of the ironies and tragedies of Mr Hu's incarceration, together with his senior staff, is that he is widely known in China and at Rio Tinto for his integrity and quietly spoken good judgment.
He is reputed to know exactly how far to push China without breaking the relationship."
Apparently it's a sign of his "integrity", and not his talents as a profiteer, that he knows "how far to push" his customers.
We have next to no facts about what he has actually done - he has been variously accused of stealing state secrets and bribery, and probably other things as well - but the presumption in the press is that he has done absolutely nothing wrong. This despite repeated confident assertions from the Chinese that they have evidence of wrongdoing.
The charge of bribery was among several described in the editorial pages of The Australian as "ridiculous", and yet it's typical in our business media to take endemic corruption as a starting point for understanding commerce in Asia. But not "our man in Shanghai" eh?
Yes, it could be a politically motivated reprisal due to dissatisfaction at the collapse of the Chinalco - Rio deal. It could be about sending a signal to Australia's resource companies about doing business with China. That sounds somewhat plausible based on the limited information we have from the press. But that doesn't preclude wrongdoing on the part of Stern Hu, nor is there anything beyond presumed motive, and circumstance, to suggest it's the case.
Look at it from a Chinese perspective. Currently contracts signed last year between the Chinese government and Rio, prior to the GFC, for $billions of ore are being renegotiated. Rio gave the Japanese and the Koreans a 33% discount and want to give the Chinese the same. The Chinese want 40%. The difference is thus something like 7% of $5-9bn or about $300-600m dollars. From the Chinese administration's point of view the corporate leaders of an exceedingly wealthy, economically stable nation of 20m people, occupying a landmass comparable to that held by China's 1.5bn inhabitants, are ransoming China its economic development, squeezing them for a few extra percent on the price of the most basic raw materials. Every day our newspapers proclaim the wondrous soft landing we've had after the crash of last year, all thanks to China's continued economic growth. Is this heroic commercial brinkmanship, or imperialism? Couldn't it be argued that the Chinese customers of Rio Tinto should be grasping at whatever levers might help them?
The results of the deals done by the likes of Rio Tinto are visible everywhere in the increased wealth of Perth. These deals fund our canal developments and sunken railways via mining royalties, bankroll a hundred thousand suburban soufflé homes via inflated salaries. But the economic midwives like Stern Hu aren't heroes or saints, they're operators who know the risks and consequences well and reap rich rewards.
I would really like to see one commentator in the Australian mainstream media admit that perhaps Stern Hu did do something wrong, whether technically or morally, and that perhaps we should, rather than baying for his immediate deus ex machina release at the hands of some diplomatic manoeuvre imagined to be possible for Kevin Rudd and Stephen Smith, instead just hope that he is fairly treated under a humane law. Though that may, in all events, be a lot to hope for from the people who have arrested him.
I don't want pro-China apologia: all I would like is a media narrative that acknowledges the fundamental asymmetry of power implied by the wealthy juggernaut businesses of Australia, organisations that are renowned for their scant concern for their own workers, being the extortionate gatekeepers of the resources needed by China. If righteousness lacks to some party to this case, it probably lacks to all parties - that, too, should not be taken as a claim of absolute moral equivalence - and not just to Chinese decision-makers in their imagined Bond villain lairs.
In case you're wondering where this all came from, I attended a work poker night on Friday and had to cope with a fat pile of racism from a couple of the people who were there. Just crazy drivel about "what the Chinese do to people". I didn't have the guts to call them out on it then, but I felt as if I was seeing the end result of the schizoid way China is being depicted in the Australian media.