US scientist Hu Zhicheng at his work place in Wuxi, China in 2011

Top US engineer held in China freed ahead of summit

A top engineer held in China for nearly five years after an intellectual property dispute with a competitor has been freed.

Hong Li said today her Chinese-American husband Hu Zhicheng, arrived at Los Angeles International Airport from China on Monday night, kust before a summit today between President Barack Obama and Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

An internationally-recognised expert in the development of catalytic converters that are used to limit pollution in automobiles, Dr Hu holds a doctorate in engineering and more than 50 patents. He has performed research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and worked for international companies.

"We're grateful, we're very, very grateful for everybody's help and we're really happy to have him back home," she said of herself and the couple's two children.

She said she first learned he was coming home in a call on Monday from a relative in China, who told her that Dr Hu was on a plane to the United States.

"We have seen the press reports, and are pleased that Dr Hu is home with his family," the US State Department said, but a spokesman at the US embassy in China had no immediate comment.

Hu returned to China in 2004 after years in the US, hoping to get in on the ground floor building cleaner-running cars just as smog-choked China's economy was booming.

He became chief scientist and president of a company trying to build top-grade catalytic converters and was honoured by the province of Jiangsu as one of its leading innovators.

His wife, meanwhile, who also holds a doctorate in engineering, started her own business supplying materials to the company that employed her husband.

But a competitor accused Hu of stealing information and providing it to his wife's company and when Li and the couple's children returned to the US for a summer visit in 2008, he was nervous enough to warn them not to come back to China. Shortly before the Thanksgiving holiday in November that year, he was arrested.

Hu was jailed for 17 months while police investigated the case and he was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing and released, but authorities refused to let him leave China after his business rival filed a lawsuit seeking financial damages. His wife said she did not know if that case has been resolved.

After his release from jail, Hu moved to Shanghai and worked for the company that employed him. He was allowed to travel freely within the country, but he could not leave.

Asked today if he would consider returning at any point, his wife laughed and said: "No, I don't think so. I doubt it."

The couple were born in China and became US citizens several years ago. Both of their children were born in the US and their daughter Victoria visited her father in Shanghai in 2010 and since then has kept up a relentless campaign from the United States seeking his release.

She posted a petition to that collected more than 60,000 signatures and started a Facebook page called Help Victoria's Father Dr Zhicheng Hu Come Home. Her mother, meanwhile, contacted the state department and other officials for years.

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