BEIJING: Stern Hu was accustomed to dealing with Chinese officials whose power far exceeded the titles on their business cards, as he worked his way through the fat bureaucracies competing for control of the nation's $350 billion steel industry.
But Hu probably never came across anyone quite like Wu Zhiming, who is due to decide his fate within 10 days.
Wu derives much of his power from the little-known fact that he is a relative of and local enforcer for the former president Jiang Zemin, who still holds enormous political sway. Wu had little education and began as a Shanghai train attendant. His fortunes improved dramatically as Jiang consolidated his power in the 1990s.
The powerful agencies he controls are due to commit Hu and his Rio Tinto iron ore sales team to trial, renew the investigation or perhaps set them free as a demonstration of the defrosting Australia-China relationship.
Hu, an Australian citizen, and three Chinese iron ore salesmen, Liu Caikui, Wang Yong and Ge Minqiang, have not seen any family, friends or colleagues since they were led away by Shanghai's secret intelligence agency on Sunday, July 5.
Hu's family has had only occasional updates from a consular official or his lawyer. He is ''very healthy'' and ''coping as well as could be hoped, a source close to the case said.
Chinese authorities have followed legal procedures to the letter but neither the Australian Government nor the lawyers have been given any detail about what the Rio employees are alleged to have done.
Wu's power comes from his deceptively modest title as secretary of Shanghai's Politics and Law Committee, which controls the city's State Security Bureau. It tapped Stern Hu's phones and arrested him and the
prosecutor who downgraded Hu's charges from giving bribes and stealing state secrets to stealing trade secrets and receiving bribes.
It also controls the police, which have Hu's file, and the court that may soon hear his case.
Wu's committee controls the bureau that administers the detention centre where Hu is held, and licenses lawyers representing him and his colleagues.
"The party controls everything, and they are frank about saying that," said Jerome Cohen, an expert on China's criminal justice system at New York University.
But some Chinese lawyers say the justice system is more tightly controlled in Shanghai because it has been the stable, long-time power base of Jiang Zemin.
Some say Wu has a tighter grip on Shanghai than even the mayor or Communist Party secretary. ''The politics and law committee in Shanghai is special in China," said a lawyer who has acted in criminal and human rights cases throughout China.
"In Shanghai the lawyer will report first to the court on his strategy," he says. "There is no way other than to co-operate.''
But Wu's power over Stern Hu's case is not absolute. Lower-level players can influence the details, and the outcome is likely to be negotiated largely with the central government's politics and law committee, run by a standing committee member, Zhou Yongkang. He is also a key ally of Jiang Zemin. This means the key political fault line in the Stern Hu case may not be between Shanghai and Beijing, but within Beijing.
The President, Hu Jintao, and a host of lesser players might also vie for influence.
Professor Cohen said he had been involved in a criminal case whose outcome had been negotiated directly between China's Minister for Foreign Affairs and his overseas counterpart.
Australia's Foreign Affairs Minister, Stephen Smith, is maximising the chances of a similar, negotiated outcome by saying little publicly, except that he respects China's legal processes.
Whatever the evidence against Stern Hu and his colleagues - and many say security forces would not have moved if they did not have evidence - political analysts say there is a risk that Rio Tinto's iron ore team will - or might already have - become stuck in the middle of a bitter struggle between President Hu and Jiang.
Security sources say the standing committee chaired by President Hu agreed to the decision to arrest Hu. But some tea leaf watchers say a Xinhua news agency story on August 31 contained a subtle message that "the Jiang camp" had borne internal responsibility for early mishandling of the case.
The report was on a commemoration of the death of a revolutionary, Jiang Shangqing.
''Representatives of the martyr's family, Jiang Zehui and Wu Zhiming, made a special trip to Anhui to attend," it said.
While it did not mention Jiang Zemin directly, the martyr was his uncle and adopted father.
That was enough for Wu Zhiming to be publicly "outed" for the first time as a relative of the former president, weeks after the Stern Hu charges had been embarrassingly downgraded.