updated 5/13/2009 7:22:38 PM ET 2009-05-13T23:22:38

An exiled leader in the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests has been secretly detained in south China for more than six months after trying to return to his homeland for the first time since 2002, his family said Wednesday.

Nearly two decades since China's pro-democracy campaign blossomed briefly in the spring of 1989, the movement and its suppression are still taboo and restrictions on those who took part remain harsh.

In April 1989, Zhou Yongjun captured global attention by kneeling on the steps of the Great Hall of the People by Tiananmen Square in a plea for China's communist leaders to acknowledge the students' extraordinary call for political freedom and an end to government corruption. He was a 21-year-old undergraduate at the time.

Zhou, a permanent U.S. resident, was detained in October trying to cross into mainland China from Hong Kong to visit his elderly parents, his sister said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

Police informed Zhou Sufen on Monday that her brother had been transferred from a detention center in Shenzhen, across the border from Hong Kong, to Suining city in the family's home province of Sichuan.

First official word
It was the first official acknowledgment of Zhou's detention. Shenzhen officials have repeatedly denied having him in custody, Sufen said by telephone from Chengdu, Sichuan's capital.

The family has kept track of Zhou's whereabouts over the past half year through information from released detainees who had contact with him in the Shenzhen detention center, his girlfriend, Zhang Yuewei, said by telephone from their home in Los Angeles. They told the family he had been accused of political and financial crimes and most recently of fraud.

"The accusations have changed many times and still we haven't received any formal notice," Zhang said.

Repeated calls to the Suining Public Security Bureau rang unanswered Wednesday. An official with the Shenzhen bureau directed calls to the local Communist Party office, where phones also rang unanswered.

Hundreds, possibly thousands, of people are believed to have been killed when troops stormed into central Beijing June 3-4, 1989, on orders to break up the student-led protests.

Zhou was imprisoned for two years after Chinese leaders crushed the pro-democracy movement. He then left China for New York and became a permanent U.S. resident.

He tried to visit China once before, in December 1998, but was arrested in Shenzhen and spent more than two years in a labor camp. He returned to the United States in 2002.

Zhang said Zhou believed China had become "more open and liberal."

Zhou, 41, also steered cleared of politics in recent years, she said, focusing instead on developing an employment agency that helps U.S. factories and other businesses find workers and new immigrants apply for work or residence permits.

Elderly parents ailing
"He joked with me that if anything happened to him, I should take care of the business. But he didn't seriously think this would happen," she said.

He was desperate to return to China to see his elderly parents who are both ailing, she added.

Since November, Zhang has written letters to numerous Chinese ministries and to Premier Wen Jiabao pleading for his release but has gotten no response. She said she needs Zhou to return to help care for the couple's 13-month-old daughter.

Susan Stevenson, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, said staff raised his case with the Chinese Foreign Ministry on Wednesday "as is usual with human rights cases."

As a courtesy, Beijing will sometimes inform the U.S. if an American green card holder is detained but it is not obligated to do so, she said.

Zhou had applied for but did not yet have a green card, his family said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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