GSK private eyes' son allowed first visit to parents in China jail as trial nears

Peter Humphrey

It had been a year since 19-year-old Harvey Humphrey had seen his parents. The husband-and-wife team of private detectives, who did investigative work for GlaxoSmithKline's ($GSK) disgraced China office, were detained by Chinese police last summer--and they've been under lock and key ever since.

On Friday, he finally got the chance to visit, in the latest chapter of a family saga that painfully illustrates the potential pitfalls of doing business in China.

Harvey, the only child of sleuths Peter Humphrey, a U.K. national, and his American wife Yu Yingzeng, told the South China Morning Post that he visited his parents in their detention center in Pudong, Shanghai, for the first time since their arrest. The visit came after some fierce lobbying by the U.S. and U.K. consulates.

"They didn't quite believe I was coming. They were quite overwhelmed. My mum was shocked. My dad held himself together," the younger Humphrey told the paper. "It's a bit unusual for the Chinese to do this. I feel something has changed in the Chinese approach to my parents."

That may be the case. Last week, China's state news agency, Xinhua, reported that the duo's trial--set for this Friday--would be open to the public, countering earlier reports of a closed trial that rankled U.S. and U.K. officials. Humphrey and Yingzeng face charges of illegally obtaining personal information on Chinese citizens, including a former Glaxo China employee that blew the whistle on a $489 million bribery scheme last summer.

Arresting the pair was an unprecedented move for China, which has been cracking down on pharma-sector corruption since the Glaxo bribery scandal broke. Peter Humphrey has said he felt slighted by the pharma giant for failing to keep him in the loop in the days before he landed behind bars.

His son, in turn, has appealed to GlaxoSmithKline CEO Andrew Witty for help with Chinese authorities. Back in December, Harvey Humphrey wrote the company's head exec to "take a few minutes to raise my father's case" during a visit to the country, he told the Financial Times. "I understand everything is complicated in China but it seems my parents are paying a big price," he said.

Complicated could be an understatement. Unfolding events and details about the GSK scandal have revealed everything from a cadre of employees demanding reimbursement for bribes their superiors allegedly ordered them to pay to a secretly filmed sex tape of former China head Mark Reilly, circulated via email to Glaxo's top execs. But above all, they've revealed that navigating China's pharma sales culture--to which bribery is endemic, some say--is no walk in the park for foreigners. And that problem has more than just the Humphreys worried about what could happen to their families.

"Many of our clients are asking about personal liabilities and insurance, with executives asking if they are put in jail what will happen to their families and how the company will provide protection for them," one lawyer told Reuters in June.

- read the story from the South China Morning Post (sub. req.)

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