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China-Australia tension over Rio Tinto spy claims

Rio Tinto's office in Beijing.
Rio Tinto's office in Beijing. Reuters

Four employees of the mining company Rio Tinto will go on trial in Shanghai on Monday, accused of industrial espionage. One of the defendants is an Australian national, and the case has raised bilateral tensions between China and Australia.

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The four defendants, one Australian, three Chinese, were arrested last July during negotiations about the price of iron ore and after Rio Tinto declined a cash injection from China's state-run mining company Chinalco.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd says the world will be watching the trial, although the hearing will be heard behind closed doors.

Australian national Stern Hu was Rio Tinto's senior executive in China in charge of iron ore. He and the three other Rio employees are charged with stealing commercial secrets and taking bribes.

They face seven years imprisonment for stealing commercial secrets and 20 years for accepting bribes, but the limit for fixed-term imprisonment in China is 20 years. Rio Tinto's China branch will likely be punished too.

The trial opens the day after Rio Tinto's chief executive officer Tom Albanese speaks at the China Development Forum in Beijing, and as iron ore price talks are renewed between Chinese steel mills and foreign mining firms.

China Daily quoted China's foreign ministry as saying that the trial is just an individual business case, which should not be politicised or have a negative impact on Australia and China relations.

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