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July 11, 2009

The Lesson of Rio Tinto

In the past few days a senior executive of Mining giant Rio Tinto has been detained in China. The charges against him of course include the classic "stealing state secrets". The one thing they can accuse you of without needing to prove it. (Because that would reveal the secrets... get it?)

I have worked in, around and with Rio TInto in some form or other for the past twenty five years. They play hard; very hard. They love to win and often do.

But never once, in any country, in any culture, or in any industry, was there ever any hint of illegality or ethical inappropriateness.


Not once...

It just doesn't happen.... their business culture is about competing, being tough, and being the best. But it has never been about bending or breaking the rules. They are an Australian national treasure after all.

The lesson in this is not in what happened, but in our reaction to it.

"Surely he must have done something. Surely a great nation like China would not act so blatantly against international law, they would not be so childish or petty as to take action against this poor individual just because they have their nose out of joint on the Chinalco deal?"

Welcome to the real world...

Outside of the western nations their is an ever growing list of ex-pats and business people being detained inappropriately for expressing an opinion, offending the ego of someone in power, or running afoul of some childish and fear based cultural norm. (The list of breaches in Venezuela alone is enough for most people to get this point)

It is pathetic, frightening and very, very real.

The lesson not believe the world will act in any way like you think they should do. If you are considering a post overseas, particularly into part of the developing world. Then go with eyes open, and normally with your mouth shut.

It is a great experience, it is career boosting and it can be exceptionally healthy for your bank balance. But it comes at a price, and that price is risk.

Don't let me talk you out of it. I am exceptionally glad I did it. But don't go naively thinking you can act and do business as you would here, but just with a different accent.

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