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.
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."