BEIJING — In the year-plus since he was released from jail, scientist Hu Zhicheng has been free, free to drive from his Shanghai apartment to his office two hours away, free to get acupuncture treatment for chronic back pain, free except to leave China and rejoin his family in America.
Twice Hu went to airports to board flights out of China only to be turned back by border control officers. A China-born U.S. citizen and award-winning inventor of emission control systems for autos, Hu has written to the police who investigated him for infringing commercial secrets and met with the prosecutors who dropped the charges for lack of evidence. Yet he has not been allowed to leave — nor told why.
"My priority is to go home and be with my family," said Hu, slight, soft-spoken and reserved. "I know how much they have suffered."
Writ large, Hu's case shows the pitfalls that Chinese who study and work in the West face when they return to apply their entrepreneurial zeal to the booming China market. Trade disputes that would be civil suits in the West become criminal cases in China. Chinese companies often cultivate influence with local officials and thus may rally law enforcement and a malleable legal system to their side when deals go awry.
In Hu's case, he and his wife believe that the company which accused him of secrets theft persuaded authorities to keep the travel ban in place. In China, sometimes punishment goes on even when the law says stop.
Police in the eastern port of Tianjin where the dispute occurred said its case against Hu was closed long ago. The city's prosecutors office did not answer questions about the case, nor did the company, Hysci (Tianjin) Specialty Materials Co. Both said the senior officials knowledgeable about the affair were away. With no apparent charges or investigation pending, lawyers said Hu should be free to go abroad under Chinese law.
For Hu, it has been a nearly three-year ordeal, from the 17 months spent in a 20-to-30-inmate group cell in a Tianjin jail to an equally lengthy time since his release. "Even though technically he's not a prisoner any more, he still is. The prison is a little bigger," said a U.S. diplomat familiar with the case.
The separation and uncertainty have taken a toll on him and his family. His wife has battled insomnia and left needed repairs to their Los Angeles area home go undone while she frets. Their daughter wrote her college admissions test essay on her father's troubles. Now a student at University of California, Berkeley, she visited him in Shanghai last July — the only family member to see him — and launched an Internet petition to bring him home.
His son, 13 when they last met, is growing up without him. "I haven't seen him in three years. Then he was up to my chest," the 49-year-old Hu said holding his hand mid-sternum. "Now he's about six feet tall," he said, removing his wire-rimmed glasses and turning his head to cry during a recent interview with The Associated Press in a Beijing coffee shop.
A few reports about Hu's situation have surfaced in Chinese-language media. Since his release, he and wife Hong Li refused repeated requests for interviews, hoping that quiet lobbying of Chinese and U.S. officials would bring him home. Their frustration growing, Hu agreed to be interviewed, providing the fullest account of his predicament.
"My life is miserable. What do they want from me?" said Hu.
The U.S. Embassy in Beijing said it has asked China's foreign ministry and a phalanx of Tianjin politicians and agencies for help and the reasons for Hu's travel ban to no result. There are other cases like Hu's, the embassy said, without specifying how many.
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