Last week, various stories were published in the United States about Renault’s claims that 3 senior employees were being investigated for leaking not-yet-patented electric car battery technology secrets in a case where Chinese interests may be implicated. Details have been sparese however, leaving unaddressed key questions such as whether the Renault employees are alleged to have released the strategic information in exchange for bribes (or ‘pots of wine’ the literal translation for the charming French term for bribes), whether the allegations to Chinese interests refer directly to state-sponsored espionage or more purely commercial efforts and if so, is the would-be buyer a Chinese automaker or other type of company?

The contours of the case as reported in the United States — bare as they were — sounded like a potential commercial bribery case.  We at the Anticorruption Blog were curious how coverage of the case in the Chinese and French media compared.  Thanks to Brussels-based colleague Guillaume  Taillandier and Shanghai-based colleague Lesley Li, as well as Shanghai intern Yang Li for their news gathering efforts!

The Chinese government’s official statements make clear that they interpret the references to “Chinese” involvement to refer to government sponsorship and they are not amused (even if the spokesman’s face is smiling in the photo):

In response to a reporter’s question about China’s possible involvement in the Renault case, Foreign Affairs spokesman Hong Lei (who by the way used to be the Public Affairs Consul at the PRC consulate in San Francisco and is a super nice guy): “With respect to the so-called ‘Chinese background’ in this case, we believe this expression is groundless, irresponsible and unacceptable to the Chinese side.” (except of course, he said this in Chinese.)  But…still no detail.

Another recent Chinese media report touches on the story, but also without additional facts. The angle taken in the story may be instructive, however, as it suggests that at least currently, the possibility of a China angle is being dismissed by turning the problem of commercial espionage back on the French: because we all know from Wikileaks that industrial espionage in France is rampant…even the Germans call France the ‘evil empire’ in this respect. “ Actually, I did not know that.  Did you? I tend to think however, that few in France would find a German assessment terribly persuasive.

In any case, still no facts.

In the French media however, a number of important facts are being reported that seem to suggest that there’s more to this story than another ‘slime China’ effort:

  • Renault used private investigators to pursue the case when the company learned of the possible theft last August.
  • The investigators told Le Figaro that they are fairly certain that they have established that secret bank accounts were established in the names of two of the three Renault employees.
  • One account is in Lichtenstein into which 130,000 Euros were deposited and another in Switzerland, holding 500,000 Euros.
  • The alleged ultimate source of the funds is the China Power Grid Corporation – a giant electrical distributor in the PRC.
  • To disguise the source of the kickbacks, the money took a circuitous route from Beijing to Shanghai and then to Malta before eventually arriving in Lichtenstein and Switzerland.

Of course, all of this will need  to be investigated and proven in court. On the 13th, Renault filed a criminal complaint with French prosecutors, seeking that a criminal investigation be opened.