Is the Chinese auto industry behind the alleged theft of industrial secrets from the French automaker, Renault? Bernard Carayon, the French lawmaker from President Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative party who heads parliament’s working group on economic intelligence, thinks there is reason to believe so, citing “proven, diverse and reliable” sources. Sarkozy, himself, has reportedly put the French intelligence services on the case. Three Renault executives, reportedly including one of its management committee, are accused to selling proprietary technical information about the engines and batteries for the electric cars on which the carmaker has bet its future to the tune of a $5 billion investment with its partner, Japan’s Nissan. The three executives have been suspended and face legal action, the company says. (Update: Renault said at the weekend that it has lost no critical technical or strategic information, only design and cost details. Via Deutsche Welle.)
Clean technologies in general and electric cars in particular are seen as a market in which Chinese companies can establish leadership. In 2007, a Chinese student on work placement with Valeo, a French clean-technology industrial group, was jailed by a French court for obtaining confidential documents from the company. Valeo now builds the power trains for electric cars it is developing with Beijing Automotive.
China is widely suspected in the West of indulging in widespread state-backed industrial espionage, the dark side of Western multinationals’ private grumbling that Chinese companies are draining them of technology in return for access to the Chinese market. China’s industrial development may be moving long-term from imitation to innovation, but the old habits are dying hard.
What makes that more difficult for multinationals is the way nation states’ expression of hard power is becoming more dependent on economic strength. Rivalry between nations is increasingly being framed in terms of economic competition, trade and investment jockeying, cyberwarfare and corporate espionage. This is happening when the leading, most technologically laden multinationals are becoming more global and less rooted in the nations from which they were born.
There is also a domestic French political dimension to the Renault case. If China’s involvement is established, it is likely to set back Sino-French relations. They hit a low point two years ago when Sarkozy criticized Beijing’s policy on Tibet before President Hu Jintao’s visit to Paris bearing a raft of Chinese buying orders late last year restored the equilibrium. Another downturn would make for a rough year for Sarkozy’ presidency of the G-20. He needs needs Beijing’s cooperation on issues from global governance to climate change for the successful high-energy presidency that is seen as a necessary precursor for his reelection as France’s president in 2012.
Here is the Catch 22 for China over the Rio 4. If it wants to be regarded as a country that follows the rule of law, not one that adjudicates for reasons of political expediency or connections, then it has to prosecute the case through the courts. If it prosecutes the case through the courts, the legal system will be exposed as the arm of state administration intended to deliver a swift conviction and sentence it is rather than an exercise in justice. The constitution and legal system provide for fundamental human rights, including due legal process. In practice, both are often ignored. But then the constitution isn’t the supreme law. The people led by the Party are supreme, a Catch-22 of its own.
The industrial espionage case involving four employers of the Anglo-Australian mining company Rio Tinto has entered its next phase. The four, who include an Australian citizen Stern Hu, have been indicted on on charges of bribery and stealing business secrets, Xinhua reports. They will stand trial in Shanghai in what promises to be another test of relations with Australia, and of the nerves of foreign investors which have been rattled by what seem to be a number of strikes at foreign companies in recent months. If found guilty, the Rio 4 could face up to seven years in jail on the commercial secrets charge, and up to 20 years on the bribery charge. Last week, Rio appointed Ian Bauert to run its operations in China. An old China hand, Bauert set up the company’s first China office more than 25 years ago.
Kevin Rudd, Australia’s prime minister, seems to have to no change out of his Chinese counterpart Wen Jiabao when the two discussed the case of Stern Hu and three of his Rio Tinto colleagues who were detained by Chinese authorities in July on suspicion of stealing state secrets. Speaking on the sidelines of the ASEAN meeting in Thailand, Rudd said only that the case, which has strained relations between Canberra and Beijing, continued to be the subject of “intense and continuing discussion” between the two countries’ foreign ministries. Deciphering the diplomatic body language, those discussions aren’t making much progress. The four were formally arrested in August on charges of stealing commercial secrets, but not on the more serious one of stealing state secrets.
The Rio Four have finally been formally arrested on charges of infringing trade secrets and bribery, Xinhua reports. A statement from the Supreme People’s Procurate said prosecutors approved the arrest of the four Rio Tinto employees, that investigations had showed they obtained China’s commercial secrets through improper means and that there was evidence of bribery involved.
The four, Stern Hu, who is an Australian citizen, Liu Caikui, Ge Minqiang and Wang Yong, were detained in Shanghai in early July. Rio has said its employees did nothing “unethical” and did not bribe Chinese steel mills for information.
Given the prominence of the arrests, formal charges hardly come as a surprise, though this Bystander notes in passing that the four were not charged with the more serious crime of stealing state secrets, which carries a potential life sentence on conviction. Stealing commercial secrets, our learned friends advise us, carries a sentence of up to three years imprisonment and/or a fine.
What to watch for next is which executives of which Chinese steel companies get fingered.