Monday, November 28, 2011

He returns to China from US, but now he can't leave

BEIJING: After two decades of working as a successful engineer in the United States, Mr Hu Zhicheng (right) decided to return to China in 2004 and apply his rich experience to designing catalytic converters for its booming automotive industry.

'I saw how polluted the air was here, and thought I could make a difference,' said Mr Hu, a naturalised US citizen who has a doctorate in engineering.

Now, it seems he cannot leave.

The last three times he tried to board an aeroplane and return to his family in Los Angeles, Mr Hu, 49, was turned away by Chinese border agents, who claimed he was a wanted man.

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 detained for 11/2 years 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 China's top-down legal system.

But since his release 19 months ago, his 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 University of California, Berkeley, began a petition campaign that has garnered more than 50,000 signatures.

Mr Richard Buangan, a spokesman for the US Embassy in Beijing, said US diplomats have had little success in pressing his case with Chinese officials.

'No authority has been cooperative with our request for information on the restrictions that block his departure from China,' he said.

Mr Hu's predicament highlights the potential perils of doing business in China, where commercial disputes can easily become criminal matters, especially when the politically well-connected use the country's malleable legal system to bludgeon rivals.

Most worrisome, legal experts say, are the country's vague commercial secret laws, which state-owned enterprises - the companies that dominate China's economy - sometimes wield to protect information related to production, procurement, mergers and strategic planning.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that overseas Chinese are more vulnerable to such abuses than their non-Chinese compatriots.

Last year, Stern Hu, an Australian Chinese mining executive, was detained after a deal between his company Rio Tinto and the state-owned Aluminium Corporation of China fell through. Convicted of stealing trade secrets and bribery, he was sentenced to 10 years in jail after a largely closed trial.

Xue Feng, an American Chinese geologist who is serving eight years in jail on similar charges, said he was tortured during his interrogation. His supporters, including US 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 Beijing. Tried in secret, he was accused of espionage, but details of his crimes were never disclosed.

Even as official policies seek to lure China-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 is kind of a reverse racism,' said Mr John Kamm, executive director of Dui Hua, a US human rights group that frequently advocates on behalf of detained foreign nationals in China. 'If you are ethnic Chinese with a foreign passport, you are really not considered a foreigner.'

Mr Hu Zhicheng, whose long resume includes stints as a researcher in Japan and more than a decade working for US designer of catalytic converters Engelhard Corp, would seem to be the ideal returnee.

In 2006, when he took a job as chief scientist for Wuxi Weifu Environmental Catalysts, a company in eastern Jiangsu province, he also brought along his wife and their two US-born children, in part, he said, because he wanted them to become steeped in Chinese language and culture.

His return coincided with a surge in domestic car production and government-led efforts to reduce 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 China-made cars.

His troubles began after his company refused to buy components from Tianjin-based Hysci Specialty Materials, which once supplied Engelhard.

According to Mr Hu and his lawyers, Hysci would not take no for an answer. They say Hysci's well-connected chief executive, Mr Dou Shihua, sent Tianjin public security agents to Wuxi Weifu to pressure Mr Hu to change his mind.

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 jail in Tianjin.

The patent infringement case prosecutors eventually built against him cited technology that has been publicly available in the US for decades, according to several scientists who rallied to his defence.

But even after prosecutors withdrew the case and Mr Hu was freed, he found his return home to the US blocked by immigration officials, who claimed he was still wanted by the Tianjin police. Each time he or his lawyer contacted the authorities there, however, they were told there were no such restrictions.

One of his lawyers said he believed Mr Dou was still using his influence to exact revenge or get a deal. Over the phone, a Hysci sales executive refused to comment on the case. The Tianjin Public Security Bureau hung up before answering queries on Mr Hu.