Hu Zhicheng's treatment a sober warning to patriotic returnees

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 June, 2013, 1:14am

Hu Zhicheng is exactly the kind of overseas Chinese Beijing wants to attract in its drive for technological mastery in the new 21st century global economy. But his awful experience over the past five years will give pause to other gifted foreign Chinese specialists or indeed any overseas experts who want to contribute technical know-how on the mainland.

Aside from the well-aired criticism about the need to improve the rule of law in such cases, it's simply in China's self-interest to protect such high-value knowledge workers, not abuse them. Hu's experience is not isolated. A Chinese-American engineer and entrepreneur, the mainland-born Hu trained at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with 48 patents to his name. Among his inventions is emissions-cutting technology for catalytic converters. The company he helped found is so successful that about half of China's domestically made cars now carry the converters. So is he now a patriotic billionaire, celebrated for his return to the nation to make his contributions? No. But he should count himself lucky for being allowed to go home to the US after being jailed and then detained over the past five years.

His forced stay might have been extended indefinitely but for the summit between Presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama in California. His sudden release appears to be a goodwill gesture ahead of the meeting. It's reminiscent of how Soviet Russia and communist China used dissidents or prisoners as pawns in negotiations with Western powers, mostly the United States. Such inhumane practices are not worthy of an emerging great power. It's unclear what caused the business dispute that landed Hu in hot water. One version says he upset a rival company run by a well-connected businessman when he refused to buy its inferior products. Another says the rival feared competition from Hu's company. Whatever the truth, he was jailed for 17 months on commercial theft charges over which even local prosecutors had cast doubts.

After his release, he was prevented from leaving the country for reasons that were never explained to him. But no new charges were laid against him.

If this is the kind of treatment that awaits patriotic returnees, who would want to come back?