By JOHN ROGERS
RANCHO PALOS VERDES, Calif. -- She was just 16, a shy girl whose life revolved around school and homework, when the phone call came that would change her life.
It was Thanksgiving weekend, and Victoria Hu couldn’t wait for her father to return from a business trip to China. She missed their family dinners and even their occasional golf games, although she never cared much for the sport. Soccer was her game. Still, like her brother, she enjoyed the time those outings provided with their workaholic father.
He had been scheduled to arrive the day after Thanksgiving when Victoria’s mother got word of a delay. She didn’t go into detail but assured her children their father would be home by Christmas.
A month later, the house trimmed and the children asking incessantly -- "When is Dad coming home?" -- Victoria learned the truth. Her father, a Chinese-American engineer, had been arrested on charges of stealing Chinese state secrets. He wouldn’t be home that Christmas, or for many more.
That was in 2008. Today, Hu Zhicheng still isn’t home, thanks to a bizarre set of legal circumstances that prohibit him from leaving China even though authorities dropped all charges.
In Shanghai, he lives life as a free man, able to do anything except depart the country. Six thousand miles away in California, his family remains locked in their own emotional prisons: The wife who was left to raise two children alone. The son, just 13 when this started, who speaks bitterly of missing out on father-son moments.
And the daughter, who spent years yearning for her father’s return and now dedicates part of her life to bringing him home.
"I fight because I believe justice will prevail," she has written, "because this is the right thing to do."
Until that call four years ago, Victoria and her brother, Richard, had grown up as typical American teenagers. Their days were filled with school, soccer practices and hanging out with friends.
Their parents, both born in China, met at Tianjin University. After earning doctorates in engineering, the couple moved to the United States in 1989, where Hu did research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Victoria was born in Boston, and Richard three years later in New Jersey, where the family moved after their father took a job doing pioneering work in the development of emission-limiting catalytic converters for automobiles.
By 2004 Hu was an internationally recognized expert in the field, and he decided to take that expertise back to China. In a place notorious for its horrific smog, he figured to get in on the ground floor helping create cleaner-running automobiles.
Hu’s wife, Hong Li, was leery of the move. She and her husband had become U.S. citizens, and she worried they were too Americanized to fit in back in China. What’s more, they no longer had the personal connections, or "guanxi" as the Chinese call it, so valuable to doing business there.
"But," she adds, "I didn’t want to be the (one) who, when the end day comes, he says, ‘I had a dream and you didn’t let me do it."’
At first, things went well. Hu became chief scientist and president of a company trying to build top-grade catalytic converters and was even honored by the province of Jiangsu as one of its leading innovators. Li started her own business supplying materials to the company that employed her husband.
The children were enrolled in school and began learning about their Chinese heritage. In summer, Li would bring them back to the states to attend academic camps and keep up with English and U.S. culture. In 2007, they were enrolled in a camp at the University of California, Los Angeles, when Li got the first inkling of trouble.
A business rival had accused her husband of stealing information and providing it to Li’s company. Police were asking questions. Hu called his wife in California with a warning: "Don’t come back."
Hu soon returned to the U.S., intent on settling in California with his wife and children. The family found a fixer-upper in Rancho Palos Verdes, a picturesque Los Angeles suburb of rolling hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
But back in China, police wanted to talk with Hu. His company also wanted him to continue with his research. And so, in November 2008, he returned to his native land for what he thought would be a brief visit.
On Nov. 28, the day he was supposed to fly back to California, Hu was arrested.
"I was ... It’s hard to explain, even now. I was in shock," Victoria says of learning of her father’s arrest.
For 17 months he was jailed while police investigated. During that time, he and his family say, he was allowed no contact with his wife or children other than the occasional letter. Victoria did her best to boost his spirits.
"I’ll be a sunlight that will warm your heart and I’ll be your moonlight guiding you through the dark," she wrote to him behind bars.
A soft-spoken woman of 20 now, Victoria keeps her emotions in check when talking about her father. But then, as a teenager trying to find her way forward, she poured her feelings into letters to him, and even an essay she wrote for a college application.
"The stress hit both my health and my schoolwork: I was often sleep-deprived, depressed and irritated," she wrote. "I worried constantly and wondered if he is still alive. ... Although I reacted initially with anger and hopelessness, I realized eventually that I couldn’t afford to pity myself. My mom needed my support ... "
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."
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."