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Daughter fights for return of dad trapped in China

Published on NewsOK Modified: March 18, 2013 at 2:30 am •  Published: March 18, 2013
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She never doubted her father's innocence. He was an award-winning scientist with nearly 50 patents to his name; she knew he didn't need to steal anybody else's research.

The Chinese eventually found the same. In April 2010, a Chinese court approved prosecutors' request to withdraw the case against Hu because of a lack of evidence. Hu was released, and made arrangements to leave the country. But when he got to the airport, he learned that as soon as the criminal case was dropped his accuser had filed a patent infringement lawsuit. The government wouldn't let him depart until that was resolved.

As months turned into years, Hu's wife frantically called the U.S. Embassy in China and wrote letters to her two senators, her congressman and the White House. As she did so, it fell on her daughter to sacrifice her childhood to take care of the family.

"She helped me cook dinner. She helped me take care of her brother," her mother says. "She used her own money she made from teaching other kids and bought Richard T-shirts and books, and she cut his hair."

When Li became ill and unable to sleep because of the stress, Victoria cared for her, too.

At the end of each exhausting day of schoolwork, cooking, cleaning, tutoring and preparing for college, the teenager would fall into bed and often cry herself to sleep.

In the beginning, neither child said much to friends about their situation. Richard, now 17, still hasn't, although he says he is starting to follow his sister's example and open up. He recently granted an interview to his high school's yearbook staff.

"It's not the most pleasant thing to talk about," the normally upbeat teenager says dryly. When he sees friends with their dads he says he knows he's missing out on father-son experiences "that would seem pretty important."

A year ago, with diplomatic efforts to bring her father home failing, Victoria decided to take the case to social media.

She posted a petition to Change.org that has gathered more than 60,000 signatures, and she started a Facebook page called "Help Victoria's Father Dr. Zhicheng Hu Come Home." The profile picture is a graphic poster of her dad smiling broadly under the words: "Free Dr. Hu."

She also worked with a friend to create a web novella in which she recounts a brief visit to Shanghai in 2010, after her father's release from prison. Victoria traveled alone; neither her brother nor mother has been back to China. Her mother fears getting trapped there as well, because her husband's accuser implicated her company. Li even missed her own mother's funeral.

Victoria, meantime, hasn't seen her father since that visit.

"His hair has grown whiter. He seems frailer," she wrote in the novella. "But when he sees me his smile could light up the sky."

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Last month in Shanghai, the 50-year-old Hu spoke with The Associated Press about his case. He said he believes he is being pressured to make a financial settlement with his well-connected business rival.

"We still haven't heard anything from the court," he said, adding that under Chinese law the deadline to bring the lawsuit to trial or dismiss it should have passed months ago. Calls by AP to the Tianjin No. 2 Intermediate People's Court, which has delayed ruling on Hu's case but kept the travel restrictions in place, rang unanswered last week.

As he waits, Hu continues his work with catalytic converters.

So far, trying to win his return home through diplomatic channels has gone nowhere. At the Hu family's behest, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., attempted to intervene but to no avail.

"The only thing a congressman can do is take it up with the State Department to ensure they are exercising all of the agreed upon options that they have with China to regularly check on the well-being of a U.S. citizen," says Kathleen Staunton, Rohrabacher's district director.

The State Department notes on its website that Americans must follow the laws of the country they are in and that, other than making those checks to ensure a person's well-being, there is really nothing else U.S. officials can do.

"At the end of the day," Victoria says, "China is really indifferent to public opinion."

And so the Hu family waits. Victoria, Richard and their mother talk with Hu via Skype, although they try to limit calls to special occasions such as Chinese New Year. It's just too hard for Hu to see his wife and children, when he can't be with them.

With money tight, repairs to the fixer-upper remain undone. The home offers stunning views, but the roof leaks and the heating system is broken.

Li, 52, earns money with consulting work, helping companies with market research, strategic planning and the occasional engineering project. Richard, now a junior in high school, spends much of his time preparing for college. He's considering a major in electrical engineering, his father's field.

Although it has often left Victoria angry, her family's ordeal has also made her decide that she should live every day to the fullest. At the University of California, Berkeley, she is a junior majoring in political economy. Because of her father's ordeal, she wants to learn more about the law.

When not studying, she's taken up drama, horseback riding and martial arts. She works part-time for a small Internet start-up that produces online comics, and she recently tried skydiving.

And she continues with her efforts to bring her father home.

As she wrote in her online novella: "I fight because one day my family will all sit down to eat dinner together again."

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Associated Press writer Charles Hutzler in Beijing contributed to this report.