A little over 20 years ago, the Leighton boss Wal King stood before shareholders at the company's annual meeting outlining Leighton's growth strategy.

In answer to a question from the floor about why the construction group had only a tentative focus on Asia, King proffered that while the region held great promise, conducting business and winning contracts in emerging economies was fraught with difficulties.

The last thing he wanted, he told the meeting, was to have to stand before shareholders the following year and defend himself and the company against accusations of improper conduct.

In the next few years, the opportunities for growth throughout the rapidly expanding economies of the region clearly outweighed the risks.

But King's insightful observations way back then clearly formed the foundation of how the company planned to conduct its business.

For mining companies like BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto, operating in China was not up for discussion. The world's fastest-growing economy, with the globe's biggest appetite for raw materials, meant there was no option other than to embrace the Middle Kingdom.

Asia is no different from any other region where commerce and economic reform has accelerated at a greater pace than political reform.

Asians, similarly, hold no monopoly on corruption. Australia, America and other developed nations have shown they can lead the world when it comes to underhand dealings and corrupt activity.

But the trial of Stern Hu and his three hapless Rio Tinto colleagues once again has drawn attention to the difficulties of operating in an environment where the political imperatives of a single party state with a compliant legal system can override commercial interests and the concept of natural justice. Then of course, there is the sticky issue of complying with secrecy laws that themselves are secret.

The ''confessions'' from Hu and his colleagues that they accepted bribes, while shocking to some outsiders, has sent a shudder through the business world for exactly the opposite reason.

It is acceptable practice throughout the region to exchange gifts. Politicians do it. So do business people.

But when does gift-giving become graft? For most of us, the answer is pretty obvious. And so it is that leaders of the legions of multi-national corporations which have flocked to the economic miracle that is China during the past two decades have been careful - just as Wal King was decades ago - to not cross that line. They have to answer to shareholders and governments back home, after all.

Strict internal policies are put in place, guidelines enforced; all with the aim of avoiding the kind of situation in which Rio Tinto has now found itself.

But then there are the other measures, the what you might call off-balance sheet transactions. One of the biggest growth industries in the region has been the rise of ''consultants''. They go by various names; commission agents, lobbying groups, public relations consultants, mercantile advisers. But their role essentially is similar.

A corporation pays them a fee for advice on doing business with a local group. Part of that fee often is passed on to the third party, purely at the discretion of the agent, of course. If anything ever goes wrong, and questions are asked, there are no footprints back to the company. At least that's the theory.

There have been rumours within the steel industry in China that Hu and some of his colleagues were involved in colluding with a steelworks executive to charge the company a higher margin for its iron ore and then split the profits.

There may be some truth to this. Then again, it may be completely false. Unfortunately, we will never know because the trial of Hu has been, as expected, a parody.

The rumours, however, do nothing for the detained Rio executives who, denied a fair trial, now are being sentenced in the court of public opinion.

How much this reflects on the Rio Tinto hierarchy is difficult to gauge. Clearly, as one of the world's leading miners accustomed to operating in far-flung, politically risky nations, it would have a stricter code of conduct for its executives than many other corporations.

That the company was unaware of the conduct of some of its leading Chinese executives - if you believe the accusations - is disturbing but not in itself damning.

While a host of commentators has been swift to point out in recent weeks that the July 5 arrests had nothing to do with the fraught iron ore pricing negotiations at the time and the debacle following Rio's decision to spurn Chinalco on China's biggest ever foreign transaction, the timing of recent events has been just a tad too exquisite. When they backed out of the Chinalco deal, Rio executives were fearful of a savage backlash. They didn't have to wait long.

And remember, the original accusations had the four Rio executives offering bribes to Chinese business leaders and stealing state secrets. As Rio worked furiously on mending the fractured relationship, the bribe accusations suddenly were reversed and the secrecy accusations downgraded to commercial espionage. Had Hu and his colleagues gone to trial on the original charges, the obvious question from prosecutors would have been: who supplied the bribe money?

A couple of weeks ago, a Chinese government body released the findings of an investigation into what went wrong with the Chinalco deal. It exonerated Rio, arguing the sharemarket recovery killed the deal.

And then, on the weekend, Rio and Chinalco announced they were back in love, with a new joint venture on a massive iron ore development in the west African nation of Guinea.

Every gripping tale has a villain. This one is likely to have four.