In a surprising turn of events, four employees of British-Australian mining firm Rio Tinto pleaded guilty Monday to taking bribes during annual negotiations over iron ore prices in China, according to lawyers and an Australian diplomat.
Australian national Stern Hu and Chinese nationals Liu Caikui, Ge Minqiang and Wang Yong were arrested in July, at first on accusations of espionage. But they were later formally charged with lesser offenses of accepting brides and stealing commercial secrets about Chinese state-owned companies.
Details of the allegations were murky, but Australian Consul-General in Shanghai Tom Connor said Hu was accused of taking 1 million yuan ($146,000) and US$790,000, reported the Associated Press.
“This issue is obviously of great concern to us, as it would be for any company operating in China. I can only say we respectfully await the outcome of the Chinese legal process,” said Rio Tinto chief executive Tom Albanese in remarks prepared for the China Development Forum in Beijing, according to Reuters.
Monday’s proceedings, which were closed to media coverage, focused on the bribery charges with the court expected to take up the commercial secrets charges on Tuesday and Wednesday. Each defendant could face up to 10 years in jail for the bribery charge, one of their lawyers said, the New York Times reported.
The admissions of bribe-taking were surprising given that Rio Tinto has asserted all along that its employees had done nothing illegal, said GlobalPost reporter in Shanghai Jean Yung. And reaction within China has been one of anger, she continued.
“Chinese Internet users have been buzzing about their anger about the corruption and the bribery in China’s own state-owned steel industry. So when details came out about how the employees of these companies were wined and dined, the Internet users were quite angry to see that people from their own country were enjoying such good treatment and selling off Chinese industries,” she said.
Hear more in Yung’s audio report: