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Chinese-American scientist barred from leaving China for 5 years is released

Chinese-born U.S. scientist Hu Zhicheng stands at the waterfront promenade along the Huangpu River in Shanghai, China. He was jailed for 17 months and then barred from leaving the country for another three years after a business rival accused him of stealing trade secrets.
Chinese-born U.S. scientist Hu Zhicheng stands at the waterfront promenade along the Huangpu River in Shanghai, China. He was jailed for 17 months and then barred from leaving the country for another three years after a business rival accused him of stealing trade secrets.Eugene Hoshiko / AP

When he was finally able to leave China after being kept there for nearly five years over a dispute with a business rival, Chinese-American scientist Hu Zhicheng got out so fast that his wife didn't have time to meet him at the airport.

Hu, an internationally known expert on catalytic converters, had gone to court several times over the years to try to get permission to leave the country and return to his Southern California home. His wife, Hong Li, meanwhile, had steadfastly lobbied U.S. officials for help.

When word that Hu had finally been released came Monday, however, it was not from any official from either government. It came from a relative in China who told Li he was on a plane headed for home. When she got to Los Angeles International Airport, he was nowhere to be found. He'd already gotten off the plane and gotten a cab.

"I got a call from my son, 'Dad's home! Dad's home!'" Li said Tuesday, recounting the family reunion.

Her husband's return ended a long, emotionally torturous separation that began when the naturalized U.S. citizen was arrested in his native country shortly before Thanksgiving 2008 and jailed for 17 months. A business rival had accused him of stealing trade secrets.

Cleared of wrongdoing by a police investigation, he was freed in 2010 and quickly headed to the airport, planning to return home. He was turned away, told that he had been placed under a border hold after his business rival sued him for damages in civil court.

For the next three years he would be free to travel anywhere in China, but not to leave the country.

He was finally allowed to go home just ahead of a summit between President Barack Obama and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, but Li told The Associated Press on Tuesday she didn't know if that played any part in her husband's release.

"We have seen the press reports, and are pleased that Dr. Hu is home with his family," was all the State Department said in a statement.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman defended the travel restrictions that had kept Hu from leaving China, saying the measures were lawful, and though he had been allowed to go, the case against him was not resolved.

"The restrictions have been lifted. The relevant case is still being handled," the spokesman, Hong Lei, said at a daily media briefing in Beijing.

A spokesman at the U.S. Embassy in China had no immediate comment, and Li herself was reluctant to say too much during a phone interview Tuesday night.

"He came home last night. Thank you for all your help!!!!!," she had simply stated in an email to the AP announcing his return earlier Tuesday.

She didn't know if the civil suit had been resolved, she said during the later phone interview. She added that her husband wasn't ready to discuss his ordeal or his return.

"We need time together," she said of the family. "We haven't had time to recover physically and emotionally yet."

Asked if she thought her husband might ever return to China again, she did manage to laugh.

"No, I don't think so. I doubt it," she said.

Until Monday, Hu's high school-aged son, Richard, hadn't seen his father since he was 13. His college-age daughter, Victoria, was 16 when he was arrested, although she managed to visit him briefly in China in 2010 after he was released from jail.

An international authority on the development of catalytic converters used to limit pollution in automobiles, Hu holds a doctorate in engineering and more than 50 patents. He has performed research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and worked for international companies.

He returned to China in 2004 after years in the U.S., hoping to get in on the ground floor building cleaner-running automobiles just as smog-choked China's economy was booming.

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