Engineer’s Return to China Leads to Jail and Limbo
“I saw how polluted the air was here, and thought I could make a difference,” said Mr. Hu, a naturalized American citizen who has a doctorate in engineering.
Now it seems he cannot leave.
The last three times he tried to board an airplane and return to his family in
The problem is, he cannot find out exactly who wants him and why.
Mr. Hu, an inventor trained at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with 48 patents and a number of prestigious science awards to his name, was jailed for a year and a half starting in 2008 after a former business associate accused him of commercial theft. The charges were so spurious that prosecutors withdrew the case — a rare gesture in
But since his release 19 months ago, Mr. Hu’s life has been in limbo and his family has grown increasingly frantic. He writes to powerful Communist Party officials who he imagines might control his fate. A coterie of influential friends and colleagues has been lobbying on his behalf. And this month, his daughter, a sophomore at the
Richard Buangan, a spokesman for the United States Embassy in
Mr. Hu’s predicament highlights the potential perils of doing business in
Anecdotal evidence suggests that overseas Chinese are more vulnerable to such abuses than their non-Chinese compatriots. Last year, Stern Hu, a Chinese-Australian mining executive, was detained shortly after a deal between his company, Rio Tinto, and the state-owned Aluminum Corporation of
Xue Feng, a Chinese-American geologist who is serving eight years in prison on similar charges, said he was tortured during his interrogation. His supporters, including American diplomats, insist that the oil and gas industry data he sold was publicly available. In 2008, the authorities executed Wo Weihan, a Chinese biomedical researcher who had returned from Europe to start a medical supply company in
Even as official policies seek to lure Chinese-born inventors, academics and entrepreneurs with housing perks and financial incentives, lingering anti-Western xenophobia nurtured during the Mao years sometimes taints them as unpatriotic for having left. “It’s kind of reverse racism,” said John Kamm, executive director of Dui Hua, an American human rights group that frequently advocates on behalf of detained foreign nationals in
Mr. Hu, whose long résumé includes stints as a researcher in
In 2006, when he took a job as chief scientist for Wuxi Weifu Environmental Catalysts, a company in eastern
His return coincided with a surge in domestic car production and government-led efforts to reduce tailpipe emissions. The company prospered, and so did Mr. Hu, who eventually became Wuxi Weifu’s president. It now provides catalytic converters for half of all Chinese-made cars.
Mr. Hu’s troubles began after his company refused to buy components from the Hysci Specialty Materials Company, which is based in
According to Mr. Hu and his lawyers, Hysci would not take no for an answer. They say Hysci’s well-connected chief executive, Dou Shihua, sent
The police raised allegations of stolen trade secrets but also suggested that the accusations would evaporate if the two companies did business together. Mr. Hu would not budge. “We have a system of quality control, and even one word from me could not change that,” he said.
In the end, the veiled threats gave way to an arrest, and Mr. Hu was put in a jail in
The patent infringement case that prosecutors eventually built against him cited technology that has been publicly available in the
But even after prosecutors withdrew the case and Mr. Hu was freed, he found his return home blocked by immigration officials who claimed that he was still wanted by the
One of his lawyers, Wang Shou, said he believed that Mr. Dou, Hysci’s chief executive, was continuing to use his influence to exact revenge or get a deal yet.
Reached by telephone, a sales executive at Hysci refused to comment on the case. The Tianjin Public Security Bureau hung up before answering questions about Mr. Hu.
His family does not know what else to do. Although his daughter visited last summer, Mr. Hu’s wife and 16-year-old son are reluctant to come here, saying they fear they, too, could be prevented from leaving.
“I worry about my husband every hour of every day,” his wife, Hong Li, who is also an engineer, said by telephone from
The emotional anguish suffered by Mr. Hu has been compounded by pain from a herniated disc that worsened during the 17 months he slept on the floor of his jail cell.
Earlier this month, at a chemical engineering conference on the outskirts of
As the conference wound down and his American colleagues headed to the airport, he made a joke about escaping across the border.
“If I could only invent something that would make me invisible,” he said.
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs