Detained Western couple shown on Chinese television in handcuffs

August 27, 2013

A British man and his American wife, detained last month for allegedly selling foreign companies private information about Chinese citizens, were shown on state television Tuesday in orange prison tunics, offering a confession and an apology.

“We obtained personal information, sometimes through illegal ways,” Peter Humphrey, 57, said in Chinese, sitting with his handcuffed hands just below his chin. “I am very regretful for this, and would like to apologize to the Chinese government.”

The humiliating footage was the latest salvo against foreign business practices in China, which has cracked down this year on issues ranging from food safety to price fixing and poor customer service.

Some foreign busi­ness­peo­ple complain they are being unfairly targeted, but the Chinese government insists it is merely protecting consumers and enforcing the law.

China’s official Xinhua News Agency said Humphrey and his wife, Yu Yingzeng, 60, were formally arrested Aug. 16. They are accused of operating illegal research companies and trafficking “a huge amount of personal information on Chinese citizens to seek profits.”

The U.S. and British embassies in Beijing said they were in contact with Yu and Humphrey, respectively, and would continue to provide them with consular assistance. Yu was born in China, but she earned a business degree in California and became an American citizen.

The couple runs a firm called ChinaWhys, an “international business risk advisory service with eyes in China.” The company’s Web site says it promotes “transparency, ethical business practices and international governance, to mitigate risk and reduce losses in multinational operations in China and across Asia.”

The business offers intelligence services to companies looking to do business with China, including “the vetting of partners and the screening of employees.” Yu, according to the Web site, is general manager of the firm and has spent the past 10 years as a fraud investigator in China.

China Central Television (CCTV) showed Yu and Humphrey, in handcuffs and wearing V-necked tunics, being escorted down a corridor by police officers, their faces blurred. Humphrey, a bespectacled, gray-haired former reporter for the Reuters news service, was then shown speaking to the camera.

Shanghai police said the pair had traded personal information about Chinese citizens — including home addresses, names of family members, exit and entry information, car ownership and real estate details.

Of 500 company investigative reports seized by police, more than 10 were found to have infringed on Chinese citizens’ right of privacy, the Xinhua report said. The information was sold to multinational companies, including manufacturing enterprises, financial institutions and law firms, making profits running into millions of yuan annually, Xinhua reported (there are just over six yuan to the dollar).

Both Yu and Humphrey have confessed and apologized, the report quoted police as saying.

Lu Wei, an officer with the criminal investigation team of the Shanghai police, told CCTV the pair had registered their company in Hong Kong in 2003 but had no office or staff there. Rather, Lu said, the Hong Kong operation was a “shell company,” while the operation in China had more than 10 employees.

Consumers’ private information is routinely traded in China, while the government constantly monitors citizens and foreigners’ communications. Still, police said they were merely applying the law in arresting the couple.

“The police will resolutely crack down on illegal activities made by either foreigners or Chinese,” Xinhua quoted the police as saying. “In accordance with the law, the Chinese government protects not only the vital interests of Chinese citizens but also the legitimate interest of foreign enterprises and foreigners in China.”

Humphrey’s and Yu’s detention last month came at the height of an investigation into British pharmaceutical group Glaxo­SmithKline, which is accused of using bribes to expand its business operations in China.

ChinaWhys reportedly performed work for GlaxoSmithKline, but Tuesday’s reports in the Chinese media made no mention of the pharmaceutical company, and it remained unclear whether the two investigations were linked.

Simon Denyer is The Post’s bureau chief in China. He served previously as bureau chief in India and as a Reuters bureau chief in Washington, India and Pakistan.
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