An acclaimed inventor of catalysts — chemical agents that speed up or slow reactions — for automobile catalytic converters, Hu has nine U.S. patents to his name and dozens more in Europe and elsewhere. He spent 20 years abroad doing research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and working for multinationals such as Engelhard Corp. in New Jersey. Among his breakthroughs: a catalyst that gives sports utility vehicles pollution controls comparable to sedans.
He left that in 2004 to return to his native China along with his family and grab opportunities in a rocketing Chinese auto market that was short of experienced innovators.
"It was really quite simple. In the U.S. the air quality is generally good — blue skies. In China you rarely see blue skies. So cleaning up the pollution would be much more effective, much more meaningful," said Hu.
His wife, Hong Li, holds a doctorate in mechanical engineering and set up a company to supply materials for catalytic converters to Wuxi Weifu Environmental Catalysts Co., a local company near Shanghai trying to build top-grade equipment to supplant foreign imports. In 2006, when a noncompete agreement with Engelhard lapsed, Hu became chief scientist, and later president, for Wuxi Weifu.
Soon the dispute surfaced with Hysci (Tianjin) Specialty Materials Co., which had ties to Hu and Li. Hysci was a supplier to Engelhard, recommended by a team Hu led to China in 2000, and its chairman Zhou Jun was a university classmate of Li's. Hysci accused Hu of pilfering a process to make a zirconium catalyst and providing that information to Li's company, a competitor, according to an open letter to Tianjin authorities that she posted on Sina Corporation's popular Internet portal in March 2010.
By late 2007, signs of trouble grew. Tianjin police repeatedly showed up at Hu's offices in Wuxi 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) to the south. A legal adviser warned him that the accusations may lead to criminal charges. He moved his family back to Los Angeles. "I saw the risks," Hu said. "The police kept coming. When my colleagues saw the police, they got scared."
Hu and Li say Hysci's business had fizzled and was losing customers while chairman Zhou squabbled with chief executive Dou Shuhua, a farmer-turned-entrepreneur and well-connected politically in Tianjin. A bank account belonging to Li's business remains frozen by Tianjin police, and she has not returned to China.
While Hu waited in detention, Tianjin's No. 2 Intermediate Court batted the case back to investigators for more evidence before approving prosecutors' request to withdraw the case on April 29, 2010. Ten days later, escorted by two U.S. Embassy officials, Hu made his first aborted trip to the airport.
"The border police in Beijing airport said 'Contact the Tianjin police detectives in charge of your case,'" Hu recounted. The scene was repeated three months later, though without the U.S. officials, when he went to board a Hong Kong-bound flight in Wuxi, he said.
Left in limbo, Hu has been consumed with trying to find out why he cannot leave and with seeking treatment for a herniated disc in his spine, a problem that arose soon after he left jail. He feels outmatched by a well-connected local company, having lived outside China for so long and having failed to cultivate the contacts Chinese prize for smoothing business.
"I'm used to the U.S. and following the laws," Hu said. "Clearly China is a different place."
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