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Engineer’s Return to China Leads to Jail and Limbo

BEIJING — After two decades of working as a successful engineer in the United States, Hu Zhicheng decided to return to China in 2004 and apply his rich experience to designing catalytic converters for the nation’s booming automotive industry.

“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 Los Angeles, Mr. Hu, 49, was turned away by Chinese border agents who claimed that 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 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 China’s top-down legal system.

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 University of California, Berkeley, began a petition campaign that has garnered more than 50,000 signatures.

Richard Buangan, a spokesman for the United States Embassy in Beijing, said that American diplomats had 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 secrets laws that 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, a Chinese-Australian mining executive, was detained shortly after a deal between his company, Rio Tinto, and the state-owned Aluminum Corporation of China fell through. Convicted of stealing trade secrets and bribery, Mr. Hu was sentenced to 10 years in prison after a largely closed trial.

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 Beijing. Tried in secret, Mr. Wo was accused of espionage, although the details of his crimes were never disclosed.

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 China. “If you’re ethnic Chinese with a foreign passport, you’re really not considered a foreigner.”

Mr. Hu, whose long résumé includes stints as a researcher in Japan and more than a decade working for an American designer of catalytic converters, the Engelhard Corporation, would seem to be the ideal returnee.

A policeman patrols under a giant communist emblem on the Tiananmen Square on June 28, 2011 in Beijing, China.
Getty Images
A policeman patrols under a giant communist emblem on the Tiananmen Square on June 28, 2011 in Beijing, China.

In 2006, when he took a job as chief scientist for Wuxi Weifu Environmental Catalysts, a company in eastern Jiangsu Province, he also brought his wife and their two American-born children, in part, he says, 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 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 Tianjin and 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, 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 a jail in Tianjin.

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

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 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, 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 Los Angeles. “I don’t want my son to grow up without a father.”

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 Beijing, he lectured about ways to reduce emissions from heavy trucks in China.

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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