#58 Rio Tinto in China

Tomorrow, the trial against four executives of the UK-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto will open in Shanghai. The executives have been charged with stealing commercial secrets and receiving bribes and are facing up to 20 years in prison. Both the protection of intellectual property and anti-corruption laws are important domains of the legal environment in any market, so what’s wrong with enforcing these laws? Well, two things. The first is that the facts of the case are not quite clear. Not much has been disclosed about the case, but it seems that what the Chinese courts see as infringements on trade secrets may be what business insiders consider rather normal gathering of industry information.┬áSecondly, the trial may turn out to be highly political and less factual. It is commonly accepted in China that judges weigh both legal and political aspects of cases and sometimes give precedence to the political aspects and interests, including the protection of local markets and companies. That the court hearings will take place behind closed doors certainly contributes to concerns that this may happen in this high profile case, too. Could all of this have prevented? Yes, maybe! Multinational companies such as Rio Tinto simply must be aware of the land mines that are buried all over China’s business environment and proceed with appropriate caution. In a way – to stick with the theme of this blog – it is a case of pride that often shows itself as ignorance concerning differences and threats in the external environment.

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