Daughter fights for return of dad trapped in China

Monday - 3/18/2013, 4:33am EDT

JOHN ROGERS
Associated Press

RANCHO PALOS VERDES, Calif. (AP) -- She was just 16, a shy girl whose life revolved around school and homework, when the phone call came that would change her life.

It was Thanksgiving weekend, and Victoria Hu couldn't wait for her father to return from a business trip to China. She missed their family dinners and even their occasional golf games, although she never cared much for the sport. Soccer was her game. Still, like her brother, she enjoyed the time those outings provided with their workaholic father.

He had been scheduled to arrive the day after Thanksgiving when Victoria's mother got word of a delay. She didn't go into detail but assured her children their father would be home by Christmas.

A month later, the house trimmed and the children asking incessantly -- "When is Dad coming home?" -- Victoria learned the truth. Her father, a Chinese-American engineer, had been arrested on charges of stealing Chinese state secrets. He wouldn't be home that Christmas, or for many more.

That was in 2008. Today, Hu Zhicheng still isn't home, thanks to a bizarre set of legal circumstances that prohibit him from leaving China even though authorities dropped all charges.

In Shanghai, he lives life as a free man, able to do anything except depart the country. Six thousand miles away in California, his family remains locked in their own emotional prisons: The wife who was left to raise two children alone. The son, just 13 when this started, who speaks bitterly of missing out on father-son moments.

And the daughter, who spent years yearning for her father's return and now dedicates part of her life to bringing him home.

"I fight because I believe justice will prevail," she has written, "because this is the right thing to do."

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Until that call four years ago, Victoria and her brother, Richard, had grown up as typical American teenagers. Their days were filled with school, soccer practices and hanging out with friends.

Their parents, both born in China, met at Tianjin University. After earning doctorates in engineering, the couple moved to the United States in 1989, where Hu did research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Victoria was born in Boston, and Richard three years later in New Jersey, where the family moved after their father took a job doing pioneering work in the development of emission-limiting catalytic converters for automobiles.

By 2004 Hu was an internationally recognized expert in the field, and he decided to take that expertise back to China. In a place notorious for its horrific smog, he figured to get in on the ground floor helping create cleaner-running automobiles.

Hu's wife, Hong Li, was leery of the move. She and her husband had become U.S. citizens, and she worried they were too Americanized to fit in back in China. What's more, they no longer had the personal connections, or "guanxi" as the Chinese call it, so valuable to doing business there.

"But," she adds, "I didn't want to be the (one) who, when the end day comes, he says, 'I had a dream and you didn't let me do it.'"

At first, things went well. Hu became chief scientist and president of a company trying to build top-grade catalytic converters and was even honored by the province of Jiangsu as one of its leading innovators. Li started her own business supplying materials to the company that employed her husband.

The children were enrolled in school and began learning about their Chinese heritage. In summer, Li would bring them back to the states to attend academic camps and keep up with English and U.S. culture. In 2007, they were enrolled in a camp at the University of California, Los Angeles, when Li got the first inkling of trouble.

A business rival had accused her husband of stealing information and providing it to Li's company. Police were asking questions. Hu called his wife in California with a warning: "Don't come back."

Hu soon returned to the U.S., intent on settling in California with his wife and children. The family found a fixer-upper in Rancho Palos Verdes, a picturesque Los Angeles suburb of rolling hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

But back in China, police wanted to talk with Hu. His company also wanted him to continue with his research. And so, in November 2008, he returned to his native land for what he thought would be a brief visit.

On Nov. 28, the day he was supposed to fly back to California, Hu was arrested.