The sentencing this week in China of three Australian employees of James Packer’s Crown Resorts brings into sharp focus the scary reality of globalisation.  Melbourne-based executive Jason O’Connor and China based staff members Jerry Xuan and Pan Dan all pleaded guilty last Monday to charges of illegally promoting gambling, and were ordered to serve between 9 and 10 months in a Chinese prison. Additionally, the Shanghai court imposed fines on the three Australians, along with 14 other Chinese Crown Resorts employees, totalling $1.67 million.

The laissez-faire feeling of a benign One World community, subliminally assured by the ease of our online global connectability, dangerously ignores the reality that often the laws, mores and social conventions of foreign countries can be very foreign indeed. In the 21st century business is broadly encouraged to think and act globally, but in the process it can be all too easy to overlook some very important detail in the gush of entrepreneurial enthusiasm. And the ramifications of getting it wrong can be extreme. Companies may face hefty fines for breaches they never saw coming, but for the individuals concerned the consequences can be even more devastating.

Some years back I was retained by an Australian company to advise on the proposed extradition of one of its executives to a foreign country on criminal charges. The charges arose out of what Australian lawyers would consider a purely civil dispute between commercial competitors in the country in question, but nonetheless the young high-flying executive found himself facing the prospect of being arrested and sent overseas for prosecution and possible imprisonment, all for conducting the company’s business as usual. It got very serious indeed, with Interpol alerted, several months of high-level legal and political wrangling, and more than a few harrowing, sleepless nights for all concerned, before the crisis was ultimately averted, much to the collective relief of my corporate client and its unsuspecting young executive.

Of course one only needs to read this week’s other news story, about the mysterious death of US university student Otto Wambier within days of his repatriation from a North Korean prison, reportedly in a coma with brain damage, to be reminded that foreign folk sometimes do things differently to what we’re used to. Wambier, 22, was sentenced to 15 years hard labour for trying to steal a poster from his hotel room in North Korea, and died within days of his return home. In Australia he probably would have got a minor fine, or perhaps a good behaviour bond.

So when you open up that online business you’ve been thinking of, marketing your products to the whole wide world, think carefully. No lawyer, no matter how learned or experienced, knows all the laws, not to mention all the social, political and religious niceties, of every country covered by the world wide web.

Our planet may be getting smaller, but it’s still a mighty big place, and much of it is still a very foreign land.

Chris Nyst, Lawyer, Novelist and Film Maker

Chris Nyst - Criminal Lawyer