BRUSSELS >> Daniel Hsu, American citizen, fought for four years to flee China.
The Seattle resident was unable to leave despite having committed no crime, a pawn in a geopolitical game between two giant superpowers.
Then earlier this month, just four days before a virtual meeting between President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, Hsu was asked to prepare to return home. He was less than 48 hours old.
“It was a total rush,” he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from his home in Seattle.
As he ran to visit his grandmother, pack his bags, and travel to Guangzhou, Hsu knew nothing about the horse trade between China and the United States in preparation for the video meeting of more than three hours between Biden and Xi on Nov 15.
The two countries appeared to be trying to calm tensions in their increasingly difficult relationship, and Hsu had become a bargaining chip. He could return to Seattle and seven Chinese nationals convicted of crimes in the United States would be returned to China.
China’s ability to strike deals by effectively holding people like Hsu hostage has raised concerns that Beijing would feel emboldened to double down on the practice, which angered not only the United States but also Canada, the United States. Australia and a number of European countries who say their citizens have also been subjected to arbitrary detention in China.
“There is no deterrence imposed on Beijing to start over,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “The problem is, if you took the genuinely principled path, a lot of people would still be in arbitrary detention in China. “
A US official who was aware of the administration’s talks with Beijing regarding Hsu told AP that Hsu was not a “deliverable” for the Biden-Xi meeting and that what looked like a prisoner swap was not. not in fact an exchange of prisoners, but rather the fruit of long and continuous efforts to get Beijing to live up to its international obligations. The official was not allowed to comment publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
“The PRC should never have subjected American citizens to coercive exit bans. The PRC had not fulfilled its international obligations to take back their returned nationals, ”said the official, using the acronym of the People’s Republic of China. “There are other Americans subject to exit bans and arbitrary detentions in the PRC, and we will continue to work to secure their release. “
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said he was not clear on the details of Hsu’s case, but that China was handling these issues according to established rules.
“I would like to stress that all are equal before the law and that the relevant Chinese bodies deal with these matters according to the law and regulations,” Zhao said in a daily briefing on Wednesday. “In the performance of these duties, there is no tolerance for interference, slander or distortion.”
Hsu told the AP he was indeed being held hostage by Chinese authorities who sought to convince his father to return to China and face justice for allegedly embezzling around $ 63,000 more than 20 years ago. years, while he was president of a government real estate company. Hsu’s father said he was innocent and the target of a political vendetta.
From August 2017 to February 2018, Hsu was held in solitary confinement in Hefei, the capital of Anhui province. The walls of her beige bedroom were covered in rubber, Hsu told the AP in an interview in 2020. The table was wrapped in soft gray leather. White blinds covered two barred windows. There were no sharp edges.
Five surveillance cameras recorded his movements and two guards kept constant and silent surveillance. They followed Hsu to the shower and stood next to him in the bathroom.
Lights were shining in the night. If he rolled over on his mattress, the guards would wake him up and turn his face towards a surveillance camera that recorded him as he slept.
When he was released from the so-called education center, he was banned from leaving and barred from leaving China. Under Chinese law, authorities have wide discretion to prevent Chinese citizens and foreign nationals from leaving the country. The United States, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom have issued notices warning their citizens that they may be barred from leaving China arbitrarily, even in disputes in which they may not be directly involved.
Hsu is not the first case of hostage diplomacy involving China.
In September, an agreement was reached to allow Meng Wanzhou, a senior executive at Chinese tech giant Huawei, to return from Canada after a three-year diplomatic standoff. Meng had faced an extradition request from the United States for fraud for allegedly distorting the company’s trade relationship with Iran.
Hours after Meng’s release, Beijing released two Canadians who had been detained in China on national security grounds shortly after Meng’s arrest in Canada. China’s Foreign Ministry said at the time that the Canadians had been released for health reasons and played down any connection to Meng’s case. Canada has long maintained that men are innocent.
The next day, two American siblings who – like Hsu – had been barred from leaving China for years with the apparent aim of forcing their father to return to China, returned to the United States.
Hsu’s luck didn’t change until the weeks leading up to the November video conference. Hsu said he received a call from the US embassy in Beijing four days before Xi and Biden spoke, on the afternoon of Thursday, November 11. He was tasked with traveling to Guangzhou, a southern Chinese megalopolis about 900 miles from his apartment in Shanghai. , in time for a charter flight back early this Sunday morning.
He went to see his 103-year-old grandmother, who lives in Shanghai. She cried when he told her he was leaving. “I could tell she was wondering if she would see me again,” he said.
Hsu had never told him about his ban on going out because he was worried about his health. He never told her about his six months in isolation. Or the fact that his wife – also innocent of any crime – had also been barred from leaving China until last year, for reasons that were never clear to them. As a result, their teenage daughter was orphaned for almost three years, living alone in their large empty house in Seattle.
Sunday morning, November 14, dawned in Guangzhou with rare and glorious blue skies, and the sun seemed to match Hsu’s mood. At the airport, he crossed the tarmac toward a waiting Gulfstream 5 jet – the plane that would finally bring him home.
Hsu said he saw seven people disembark, although he did not know who they were.
Only one of them – Xu Guojun, a former Chinese bank executive, now bald and wearing loose camouflage pants – was handcuffed. A pair of police officers dressed in hooded white hazardous materials protective suits, with goggles, masks, blue gloves and blue slippers escorted him out of the plane.
Xu fled China in 2001 after being accused of embezzling hundreds of millions of dollars. China’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection issued a statement touting Xu’s return to the homeland as a “major achievement” in China’s global fight against corruption, which has escalated under Xi Jinping.
A federal court in Las Vegas convicted the former Bank of China director of conspiracy in 2009 and ordered him and his co-conspirators to pay $ 482 million in restitution. He spent nearly 13 years in a US prison, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
Two of the other returnees – Zhang Yujing and Lu Jing – attempted to enter Mar-a-Lago in 2019. Zhang was sentenced to eight months for trespassing and lying to federal agents, while Lu was sentenced to 59 days. for resisting arrest, according to DHS. Two others – Wang Yuhao and Zhang Jielun – were convicted of illegally photographing a naval air base in Key West, Florida in 2020. The latest couple – Sun Yong and Tang Junliang – had been convicted of financial crimes in the ‘Utah, according to DHS. and the archives of the Ministry of Justice.
And then it was Hsu’s turn. He climbed ten steps to board the plane. He had only one suitcase and one carry-on.
“I felt like I was already on American soil. It was a real relief, ”Hsu said. “I took a deep breath as I sat down in my chair. “
He said he spent the six-hour flight from Guangzhou to Guam reading “Dune” in Mandarin, playing video games, and chatting with half a dozen immigration and customs officials also in the city. airplane. Then there was a three hour layover in Guam and a seven hour flight to Honolulu.
He said he spent the 24-hour layover in Hawaii mostly sleeping in his hotel room, and then was back on the jet for a five-and-a-half-hour flight to Phoenix.
In Phoenix, he switched to a commercial flight, which was delayed by almost three hours.
As Biden and Xi spoke about Taiwan, trade, climate change, and the mutual need to avoid conflict, Hsu paced the Phoenix Airport exhausted and aimless. “I tried to read a book or read something on my phone, I just can’t,” Hsu said. “I couldn’t concentrate on anything. I couldn’t wait to see my wife.
Finally, around 10 p.m. local time, Hsu landed at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. A representative of the Office of the President’s Special Envoy for Hostages was waiting for him. His wife, Jodie Chen, was too.
“I just held her and gave her a hug,” Hsu said. “A very big, very tight one.”
“Welcome home,” Chen said.
Thanksgiving this year promises to be a huge improvement over the holiday four years ago, which Hsu said he celebrated in isolation in Hefei. He said he had managed to convince his caretakers to bring him a special Kentucky Fried Chicken meal.
Hsu said he was grateful to everyone who worked behind the scenes to bring him home. He says he is happy to be in a free country but often thinks of those close to him. “I hope all is well with my family in China,” he said.
His final departure was so sudden that Hsu said he didn’t have time to think about what was to come next, beyond trying to regain time with his family and regain life and freedom. that he had lost.
“I’m tired. Just tired,” he said. “I haven’t seen my parents for four years. I haven’t seen my wife for a year and a half. We have a lot to say. . “
Associated Press reporters Aamer Madhani and Ben Fox in Washington contributed to this report.
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