The Seattle resident was barred from leaving despite having committed no crime. Then earlier this month, just four days before a virtual meeting between President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, Hsu was told to prepare to go home. He had less than 48 hours.
“It was a total rush,” he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from his home in Seattle.
Hsu knew nothing of the horse-trading going on between China and the U.S. in the build-up to the three-plus hour video meeting between Biden and Xi on Nov. 15. Both countries appeared to be trying to dial back tensions in their fractious relationship, and Hsu had become a bargaining chip. He could return to Seattle, and seven Chinese nationals who were convicted of crimes in the U.S. would be sent back to China.
China’s ability to make deals by effectively taking people like Hsu hostage has raised concerns that Beijing may feel emboldened to double down on the practice.
“There’s no deterrent imposed on Beijing to doing it again,” said Sophie Richardson, China Director at Human Rights Watch. “The problem is if you took the truly principled road, a lot of people would still be sitting in arbitrary detention in China.”
A U.S. official knowledgeable about the administration’s talks with Beijing told AP that Hsu was not a “deliverable” for the Biden-Xi meeting and that what looked to some like a prisoner exchange was rather the product of long – and continuing – efforts to get Beijing to live up to its international obligations. The official wasn’t authorized to comment publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said he wasn’t clear on the details of Hsu’s case, but that China handled such matters according to established rules.
“I would like to emphasize that all are equal under the law and the relevant Chinese organs handle such matters in accordance with the law and regulations,” Zhao said at a daily briefing on Wednesday. “In the carrying out of such duties, there is no tolerance for interference, slander or distortion.”
Hsu told the AP he had been effectively held hostage by Chinese authorities seeking to convince his father to return to China and face justice for allegedly embezzling roughly $63,000 over 20 years ago. Hsu’s father said he is innocent and the target of a political vendetta.
Under Chinese law, authorities have broad discretion to block Chinese citizens and foreign nationals from leaving the country. The U.S., Canada, Australia and the U.K. have issued advisories warning people they can be prevented from leaving China arbitrarily.
Hsu’s is not the first case of hostage diplomacy involving China.
Hours after Canada released Meng Wanzhou — a powerful executive at Chinese tech giant Huawei who had faced a U.S. extradition request on charges of fraud — Beijing freed two Canadians detained in China on national security charges. China’s Foreign Ministry downplayed any connection with Meng’s case. The next day, two American siblings who — like Hsu — had been blocked from leaving China for years returned to the United States.
Hsu’s luck didn’t change until the weeks leading up to the November video conference. Hsu said he got a call from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing on the afternoon of Thursday, Nov. 11. He was instructed to get to Guangzhou, a southern Chinese megacity about 900 miles from his apartment in Shanghai, in time for a charter flight home early that Sunday morning.
He went to see his 103-year-old grandmother. She cried when he told her he was leaving. “I could tell she was wondering if she’d see me again,” he said.
Hsu never told his grandmother about his exit ban because he worried for her health. He never told her that he had been held for six months in solitary confinement, under constant surveillance, with lights that never went off. Or that his wife – also innocent of any crime – had also been blocked from leaving China until last year, for reasons that were never clear to them. As a consequence, their teenage daughter was effectively orphaned in Seattle for nearly three years.
Sunday morning, Nov. 14, dawned in Guangzhou with a glorious blue sky. At the airport, Hsu walked across the tarmac toward a waiting Gulfstream 5 jet.
Hsu said he saw seven people disembark, though he didn’t know who they were.
Only one — Xu Guojun, a former Chinese bank executive — was in handcuffs. China called Xu’s return a “major achievement” in China’s global anti-corruption fight. A federal court in Las Vegas had convicted the former Bank of China manager on conspiracy charges and he spent nearly 13 years in U.S. prison, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
Two other returnees – Zhang Yujing and Lu Jing – tried to enter Mar-a-Lago in 2019. Another two – Wang Yuhao and Zhang Jielun – illegally photographed a naval air station in 2020. The final pair – Sun Yong and Tang Junliang – were convicted of financial crimes, according to DHS and Justice Department records.
And then it was Hsu’s turn. He walked up ten boarding stairs with a single suitcase and one carry on.
“That was really a relief,” Hsu said. “I took a deep breath when I sat down in my chair.”
Thanksgiving this year promises to be a massive improvement on the holiday four years ago, which Hsu said he celebrated in solitary confinement in Hefei, where he managed to convince his minders to bring him a special meal of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Hsu spent the six-hour flight from Guangzhou to Guam reading “Dune” in Mandarin, playing video games and chatting with a half dozen Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials. Then there was a three-hour layover in Guam, a seven-hour flight to Honolulu, a 24-hour layover in Hawaii and a five-and-a-half-hour flight to Phoenix.
In Phoenix, he switched to a commercial flight, which was delayed by nearly three hours. As Biden and Xi spoke of the need to avoid conflict, Hsu paced the 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 focus on anything. I couldn’t wait to see my wife.”
Finally, around 10 p.m., Hsu touched down in Seattle. A representative from the Office of the Special Presidential 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 very big one, very tight.”
“Welcome home,” Chen said.
Associated Press reporters Aamer Madhani and Ben Fox in Washington contributed to this report.