Aussies press China on Rio arrest

SYDNEY: Australia made high-level representations in China today over the arrest of a top mining executive on bribery claims, as diplomatic tensions deepened between the key trading partners.

Trade Minister Simon Crean, who is in China on a pre-arranged diplomatic visit, contacted the Shanghai government to intervene on behalf of Rio Tinto’s Stern Hu, who is accused of spying and stealing state secrets.

Beijing claims Hu, the head of Rio’s Shanghai office, bribed staff at Chinese steel companies during protracted iron ore price negotiations, allegations which have “surprised and concerned” Rio.

Crean said he expressed “strong concern” to the city’s deputy secretary general and urged expeditious treatment of Hu’s case.

“We have reinforced in the strongest possible terms the importance of the matter being dealt with as expeditiously as possible, having regard to the processes of Chinese law,” Crean told reporters in Shanghai.

“We respect the Chinese legal system and the processes that need to be gone through, but we’ve indicated this too is an important issue back home in Australia for us. We have conveyed the importance of this issue at the level of government here and we have been assured that that message will be conveyed,” Crean said.

Australian consular officials were late last night granted access to Hu for the first time since his arrest without charge last Sunday, and said he seemed well.

“He appeared in good health and he said he was in good health,” Crean said.

“We have conveyed that information to his family and of course we continue to follow with great concern the welfare of Mr Hu,” he added.

Former Rio suitor, China’s state-owned Chinalco, has denied Hu’s arrest was payback for the collapse of its $ 19.5 billion takeover bid. Rio, the world’s third-largest miner, has been locked in difficult talks with China to set iron ore prices for the coming year, with negotiators missing a key deadline on June 30.