Behind the smiles, the ups and downs doing business

There have always been ''friends of China'', assiduously courted by the Chinese system, but few have been as passionate as Australia's fifth-richest man, Andrew Forrest.

Mr Forrest, who has built his $5.7 billion fortune on China's hunger for Pilbara iron ore, brought together the most high-powered group of Chinese and Australian corporate leaders to have ever faced each other across a room. He emerged to declare a ''personal conviction'' that China was a nation of ''rule of law''.

Elsewhere in the Bo'ao Forum for Asia, Prime Minister Julia Gillard was side-stepping questions about why several successful Australian entrepreneurs had been stripped of their assets and were sitting in Chinese jails.

The A-list Australian and Chinese executives had been unusually blunt as they worked though barriers to accessing the Chinese market, according to executives who were in the room. Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce explained how the People's Liberation Army's interference with Chinese air corridors was costing his company millions of dollars in delays and wasted fuel.

Their Chinese counterparts, including the heads of two of China's giant state-owned financial conglomerates, raised concerns about Australia's infrastructure, labour market flexibility and its foreign investment screening regime.

Mr Forrest said that Li Ruogu, chairman of the Export-Import Bank of China, had challenged the Australian business delegates to help improve perceptions about the nature of China and especially its state-owned enterprises when they returned back home.

''I speak on behalf of my co-chairman Li, who observed correctly that the view of the people of China is not an expansionist view,'' Mr Forrest said, briefing journalists on Saturday night.

''It's not in any way an aggressive view. They do not understand how people could look at China through anything but friendly eyes and he challenged businesses from the Australian side to put forward an argument as to whether or not we could counter that logic,'' said Mr Forrest, conveying the message from Chinese delegates, particularly Mr Li. ''He concluded that with 'we are but one family under the sky of heaven'.''

Mr Forrest's A-list executives, in private, were appreciative of the rare opportunity to talk freely with their counterparts, although not all were ready to take up Mr Li's challenge.

The group included Westpac's Gail Kelly, Macquarie Group's Kevin McCann and Nicholas Moore, ANZ's Mike Smith and NAB's Michael Chaney.

Sitting next to Mr Forrest was Geoff Raby, the former ambassador to China and a director of Mr Forrest's Fortescue Metals, who cautioned that doing business in China was ''complicated''.

Absent from this year's forum was Hu Dehua, an adviser to Fortescue, who told Fairfax a fortnight ago he had lost control of his real estate development to an adversary who had arrived with more than 200 thugs ''armed with sticks [and] guns''. Mr Hu said the police could not investigate because his adversary's political connections had been more powerful than his.

The story Behind the smiles, the ups and downs doing business first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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