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Don’t Do Geographic Surveys In China!

China criminal laws

Reuters article just out, entitled, China warns against illegal surveys by foreigners, warning foreigners not to conduct geographic surveys in China. My advice on this is to take heed.

Many years ago, a friend of mine, Dann Oppfelt, was detained in Russia for alleged spying arising from his having being “caught” with pictures of a naval facility that had been given to him by someone seeking to sell the facility in a commercial sale. As one would expect, Oppfelt’s story makes for interesting reading [link no longer exists]:

Dann Oppfelt is nursing a beer at the Edgewater Inn bar on Seattle’s waterfront and trying to explain his latest little problem with trading in the Russian Far East. The Mill Creek-based trader is waiting for a 40-ton-cargo of scallops to arrive from a Russian Far East port on the Kamchatka Peninsula. Apparently, three Iraqi stowaways were found aboard the ship scheduled to pick up the seafood, forcing the vessel back to the Port of Vladivostok and throwing a potential monkey wrench into Oppfelt’s plans.

But Oppfelt, looking younger than his 40 years, shrugs off the incident with a laugh. He’s been in this position too many times before to get worried about a couple of stowaways. “Just when you think you’ve experienced everything, something else comes up or someone throws you another curveball,” Oppfelt says. “This time it’s the Iraqi stowaways. Now that’s a new one.”

Oppfelt is one of the state’s cowboy traders who has experienced more than his share of Russian fastballs whizzing his way during four year of importing and exporting on the Kamchatka Peninsula. He’s lost hundreds of thousands of dollars on bad deals and been left high and dry by former Russian partners who left town owing money and then were denied visas to return. The biggest zinger of all came last May, when Russia’s Federal Security Service — a kinder, gentler KGB — branded Oppfelt an American spy for buying information about a Russian submarine base on the Kamchatka Peninsula. Oppfelt says he was approached in November 1995 by a naval officer about converting the once-top-secret base to civilian use and merely paid $300 for pictures and information about the base.

In April, five months after the meeting, intelligence officers detained Oppfelt, interrogating him for three hours about the incident. They produced a videotape showing the exchange of information for money, and complimented him on his training as a spy. In true Russian style, they even broke open a bottle of vodka. Oppfelt, who speaks Russian, served in naval intelligence and monitored Soviet communications from Japan in the early 1980s. Russian authorities apparently have long memories and good records. Nonetheless, Oppfelt maintained this was all totally innocent and was released. A week later he returned to Seattle as scheduled, only to discover Russian officials had banned him from the country on account of espionage activities.

While Oppfelt’s spy escapade is an extreme case, nearly all Americans doing business in the Russian Far East have their own horror stories to tell, making it clear this is not your usual emerging market. “I don’t think you’ll find anybody who has done business in Russia who hasn’t lost money, changed partners, lost product, had the rules changed on them while their cargo is halfway across the ocean or had product seized by customs officials,” Oppfelt says. “Doing business in Russia is never dull.”

I am quite sure that if I had substituted “China” for “Russia” and changed all Russian indicators to Chinese, nobody would have even thought to call me on it. Well it seems China is moving to crack down on foreigners engaging in geographic surveying, claiming such surveys are a security threat.

According to the Reuters article, “China’s state-controlled media have warned citizens” not to engage in surveying, “charging that illegal surveys by foreigners in the country were on the rise and threatening national security:”

“Many Chinese mistakenly believe that geographic information is not secret because satellites are commonly used to gather such information,” the English-language China Daily said on Wednesday, quoting the Chinese-language tabloid Global Times.

“But coordinates, topography and geologic information of key areas and core facilities are still top secret. Once acquired by other countries, the information could be used to attack wartime targets,” the China Daily said, citing experts.

Some overseas organizations had “taken advantage” of local governments’ eagerness to attract foreign investment and directly asked for geographic information, the newspaper said.

Others used the cover of setting up joint ventures and cooperative projects, it added.

The article goes on to say that China’s State Bureau of Surveying and Mapping has warned that foreigners who carry out illegal surveys or publish such data without permission will face “severe punishment.” According to the article, already this year, two Taiwanese were prosecuted for drawing and selling overseas maps of China. “In another case, a foreign map company with strong government connections was caught in May 2004 when it entered a military area in the eastern coastal province of Shandong.” Then just this month the Chinese authorities banned the Chinese edition of China Development Brief, a newsletter published by a Beijing-based Briton which reports about China’s environment and civil society, for “conducting unauthorized surveys.” Last year, two Japanese scholars conducting unauthorized research in China’s far west Xinjiang region were deported.

I see all of this as part of the trend in China to get increasingly tough on law violations by foreign companies doing business in China. This crackdown on surveys is part and parcel of what our China lawyers are seeing with the Chinese government cracking down on foreign companies that have failed to register their companies in China and/or failed to pay their China taxes.

Bottom Line:
We have said this before and we will say it again: you must become aware of China’s laws and you must follow them. There is a reason why our international lawyers find themselves helping foreign companies on China criminal law matters more than all other countries combined.

7 responses to “Don’t Do Geographic Surveys In China!”

  1. The times are indeed changing, even here. Taking photos on NY bridges is now disallowed, and there has been a regulation for many years prohibiting photo shooting in the NY subway (not including movie-making, which involves permit application). When Steve and I lived in Taiwan (not together, that is), taking photos at beaches was disallowed, for fear the pics might make their way to the Mainland and be used for invasion prep. Taiwan used to threaten foreigners with deportation even for “uglification” of the government, i.e. publication of negative comments. Anyone have a deportation-from-China story to share?

  2. Two years prior to this story, I’m surprised everyone missed out on Japanese and UK scientists being deported for “unauthorized meteorological measurements”.
    China’s environmental degradation is as much of a “state secret” as anything actually military.

  3. I don’t see the Chinese bureaucracy proactively enforcing any law without a economic agenda behind it. The toughing of the law on geo-data collections coincides with the new hype of the location data. Geo survey isn’t only about the rural areas but also cities land scape such as street map and others. With with the amazing city development museum in Shanghai, Shanghai still doesn’t have a complete street map information detail enough for GPS navigation system. I had a experience of a friends’ cars asking him to jumping off one of the overpass. 🙂
    Geo data is the new gold mine. China is enforcing the law to ensure the domestic companies take a piece of it. The enforcing of the law on foreigners is one of the trick to force JVs out of the foreigner parties while there are not enough investment interest in the domestic parties. Geo data costs a lot to collect and keep up to date. Thomas Guide is spending tens of millions a year just to keep Southern California data up to date.

  4. Three years back I was on a hiking trip with friends in China. We were using GPS receivers and mobile phones for navigating but hiked into a restricted military area which was not marked on any map. So we were held there for a while, interrogated like I have seen in old Vietman / American war movies and stuff. They took our cameras, GPS receivers and mobile phones. They also wanted to keep our passports but we kind of refused. All worked out OK in the end but it was a funny experience. 🙂

  5. Avoiding Chinese Jails. I’m Talkin’ To You.
    In her post, Hot Water in China? Don’t Get Burned: Part I, Aimee Barnes highlights how important it is for foreigners to follow the law in China. All of the laws. All of the time. No matter how much you may disagree with them, no matter how silly you m…

  6. Good advice anywhere in the third world. I had a friend who was held by the police for two weeks in Kyrgyzstan a few years ago for something similar.

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