Daniel Hsu, an American citizen, fought for four years to escape China
The Seattle native was not allowed to leave despite committing no crime, a pawn in a geopolitical game between two giant superpowers.
“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 things and travel to Guangzhou, Hsu knew nothing about the horse trading between China and the US leading up to the more than three-hour video meeting between Biden and Xi on November 15.
Both countries seemed to be trying to reverse the tensions in their increasingly strained relationship, and Hsu had become a bargaining chip. He could return to Seattle and seven Chinese citizens convicted of crimes in the US would be returned to China.
China’s ability to make deals by effectively holding people like Hsu hostage has raised concerns that Beijing may feel encouraged to double down on the practice, which has angered not only the US, but Canada, Australia and a number of European countries who say their citizens have also faced arbitrary detention in China.
“There is no deterrent to Beijing from doing it again,” said Sophie Richardson, China Director at Human Rights Watch. “The problem is that if you went down the really principled road, a lot of people would still be in arbitrary detention in China.”
A US official who was aware of the government’s talks with Beijing regarding Hsu told the AP that Hsu was not a “supply” for the Biden-Xi meeting and that what appeared to some to be a prisoner swap wasn’t actually a prisoner swap. , but rather the product of long – and ongoing – efforts to get Beijing to honor its international obligations. The official was not authorized to comment publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
“The PRC should never have subjected US citizens to forced travel bans. The People’s Republic of China had failed to meet its international obligations to take back their nationals who have been ordered to be removed,” the official said, using the acronym for the People’s Republic of China. “More Americans have been subject to travel bans and arbitrary detentions in the PRC, and we will continue to work to ensure their release.”
Hsu told the AP that he was actually being held hostage by Chinese authorities who wanted to convince his father to return to China and face trial for embezzling about $63,000 more than 20 years ago when he was chairman of a government real estate company. Hsu’s father has said he is innocent and the target of a political vendetta.
From August 2017 to February 2018, Hsu was held in solitary confinement in Anhui province’s capital, Hefei. The walls in his beige room were covered in rubber, Hsu told AP in a 2020 interview. 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 a constant, silent watch. They followed Hsu to the shower and stood next to him by the toilet.
Lights shot through the night. When he turned over on his mattress, guards woke him up and forced him to turn his face to a security camera that captured him as he slept.
When he was released from the so-called education center, he was banned from leaving China. Under Chinese law, authorities have wide discretion to block both Chinese and foreign nationals from leaving the country. The US, Canada and Australia have repeatedly warned their citizens that they cannot leave China arbitrarily, even over disputes they may not be directly involved in.
Hsu’s is not the first case of hostage diplomacy involving China.
An agreement was reached in September to Meng Wanzhou a senior executive at Chinese tech giant Huawei, to return from Canada after a three-year diplomatic standoff. Meng was facing an extradition request from the US on charges of fraud for allegedly misrepresenting the company’s business dealings with Iran.
Within hours of Meng’s release, Beijing released two Canadians who had been held in China on national security charges shortly after Meng’s arrest in Canada. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said the Canadians were released at the time on health grounds and downplayed any connection to Meng’s case. Canada has long maintained that the men are innocent.
The next day, two American siblings who – like Hsu – had been blocked for years from leaving China in an apparent attempt to force 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 Thursday afternoon, Nov. 11. He was ordered to go to Guangzhou, a southern China mega-city about 900 miles from his Shanghai apartment, in time for a charter flight home early Sunday morning.
He went to his 103-year-old grandmother, who lives in Shanghai. She cried when he told her he was leaving. “I could see she was wondering if she’d see me again,” he said.
Hsu had never told her about his travel ban because he was concerned about her health. He never told her about his six months in solitary confinement. Or the fact that his wife – also innocent of any crime – was also blocked from leaving China until last year, for reasons that were never clear to them. As a result, their teenage daughter was orphaned for nearly three years, living alone in their large, empty Seattle home.
Sunday morning, November 14, dawned in Guangzhou with a rare and glorious blue sky, and the sunshine seemed to suit Hsu’s mood. At the airport, he walked across the tarmac to a waiting Gulfstream 5 jet—the plane that would eventually take him home.
Hsu said he saw seven people disembark, though he didn’t know who they were.
Only one of them – Xu Guojun, a former Chinese bank manager, now bald and wearing baggy camouflage pants – was handcuffed. A pair of police officers dressed in hooded white hazmat suits, with goggles, face masks, blue gloves and blue booties escorted him out of the plane.
Xu had fled China in 2001 after being accused of embezzling hundreds of millions of dollars. China’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection released a statement hailing Xu’s return to the motherland as a “great achievement” in China’s global fight against corruption, which has intensified under Xi Jinping. A federal court in Las Vegas convicted the former Bank of China manager of conspiracy in 2009 and ordered him to pay $482 million in restitution. He spent nearly 13 years in prison in the US.
Two of the other returnees – Zhang Yujing and Lu Jing – had attempted to enter Mar-a-Lago in 2019. Zhang was sentenced to eight months for trespassing and lying to federal agents, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Lu was sentenced to 59 days for resisting arrest. Two more — Wang Yuhao and Zhang Jielun — went to jail for illegally photographing a naval air station in Key West, Florida, in 2020. The last couple — Sun Yong and Tang Junliang — had been convicted of financial crimes in Utah, according to DHS and Department of Justice records.
And then it was Hsu’s turn. He walked up ten flights of stairs to the plane. He had a single suitcase and a carry-on bag.
“I felt like I was already on American soil. That 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 talking to half a dozen immigration and customs enforcement officials, including on the plane. Then there was a three-hour layover in Guam and a seven-hour flight to Honolulu. He said he basically slept in his hotel room during the 24-hour layover in Hawaii, then it was back on the jet for a five-and-a-half-hour flight to Phoenix.
In Phoenix, he transferred to a commercial flight, which was delayed by nearly three hours. While Biden and Xi talked about Taiwan, trade, climate change and the mutual need to avoid conflict, Hsu paced the Phoenix airport exhausted and aimlessly. “I’ve been trying to read a book or read something on my phone, but I just can’t,” Hsu said. “I couldn’t concentrate on anything. I couldn’t wait to see my wife.”
Finally, at nearly 10 p.m. local time, Hsu landed at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. A representative of the Office of the Presidential Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs was waiting for him. So was his wife, Jodie Chen.
“I just held her and gave her a hug,” Hsu said. “A really big one, very tight.”
“Welcome home,” Chen said.
Thanksgiving this year promises to be a huge improvement from the holiday four years ago, which Hsu says he celebrated in solitary confinement in Hefei, the capital of China’s Anhui province. He said he convinced his caretakers there to bring him a special meal of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Hsu said he is grateful to everyone who worked behind the scenes to bring him home. He said he is happy to be in a free country, but often thinks about his relatives. “I hope all is well with my family in China,” he said.
His latest departure was so sudden that Hsu said he had no time to think about what comes next, other than trying to reclaim the time with his family and return to the life and freedom he lost.
“I’m tired. Just tired,” he said. “I haven’t seen my parents in four years. I haven’t seen my wife in a year and a half. We have a lot to talk about.”
Associated Press reporters Aamer Madhani and Ben Fox in Washington contributed to this report.