Nearly two decades ago, Vincent Wu emigrated to the United States and watched happily as his family lived the American dream. His eldest son recently graduated from medical school, his daughter found success in the fashion industry, and his youngest child was acing his courses at the University of Southern California.
But Wu’s American dream would soon become a Chinese nightmare. For years, he had been embroiled in a legal fight with a former Chinese police official who tried to steal Wu’s lucrative wholesale-produce market business in the southern province of Guangdong. After a decade of litigation, China’s supreme court ruled in Wu’s favor in February. Little did he know, Chinese law was again going to be used against him.
In June, Wu, 54, a naturalized U.S. citizen, was arrested not far from the wholesale market, along with 40 other people who worked there, including janitors and security guards. As they led him away in handcuffs, the police made a shocking accusation: Wu was not just a successful businessman, but a member of a notorious Chinese mafia known as the Triads.
Jail brought new horrors. For weeks, Wu said he was tortured in order to extract a confession, according to his lawyers. Day after day, his captors chained him upside down, beat him, and banged his head against the floor until he lost consciousness, only to awake in a splash of cold water.
As he was being brutalized, one police officer told him “it’s an honor to beat an American citizen to death.”
And yet the terrible irony of this case is that Wu’s American citizenship offers him no protection because he entered China using his Hong Kong ID rather than his U.S. passport. That fateful decision has allowed the Chinese government to ban all access from U.S. consular officials, since China does not recognize dual-nationality.
Wu’s plight has shone a spotlight on the legal quicksand of modern China, where politically powerful insiders can wield their connections in the criminal-justice system to vanquish their business foes. Chinese who obtain foreign citizenship are particularly at risk, because the Chinese government has been known to ignore their foreign nationality—and the legal protections that come along with it—in criminal cases.
In a 2010 closed trial, Stern Hu, a Chinese-Australian mining executive was sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges of stealing state secrets and bribery. His arrest came not long after a deal fell through between his company, Rio Tinto, and the state-owned Aluminum Corporation of China.
The charge of stealing state secrets also landed an American named Xue Feng in prison for eight years. A geologist, Xue claimed he was tortured while police were interrogating him over accusations he’d sold data on the oil and gas industry that U.S. diplomats showed were in fact publicly available.
In Wu’s case, his family says the charges are part of a plot hatched by a corrupt official named Lin Qiang. In 2002, Wu’s business partner in the wholesale market secretly sold the company to Lin, the former deputy director of public security for Guangdong province and chief of the provincial National Security Unit. When Wu protested, Lin had him jailed for 11 months in 2002, only to see him released for lack of evidence and file suit against him. China’s supreme court ruled that Wu owned the $32 million property earlier this year, but Wu’s family said that is when Lin began plotting revenge. “You will never win in China,” he told Wu. “I control the laws in mainland China.”
On June 22, 300 police officers surrounded the wholesale market and arrested Wu and dozens of others. The family reports that many of those arrested were tortured and then offered more lenient sentencing if they cooperated with the police. Wu is accused of leading a gang, running a casino, and being in possession of bullets, which are illegal in China.
Wu’s family denies he’s a Triad, explaining the few bullets as a good-luck charm from a friend and the casino as a small-time game among friends at his office. “They are putting these small things on top of his head,” his daughter Anna, 27, said.
Chinese government officials couldn’t be reached for comment on Wu’s case.
Wu’s trial is scheduled for Christmas Eve, a holiday that has been used by the Chinese government before for controversial legal proceedings—a time when the West will be too distracted to notice. Nobel Peace Prize-winner Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to 11 years in prison for subversion on Christmas Day 2009. In a country where “guilty” is the default judicial outcome, Wu’s supporters are dismayed to have heard that sentencing has already been scheduled—for Dec. 26.
As the trial looms, Wu’s family is desperately trying to free him, although they have never been allowed to see him. After his arrest, Wu’s son Kenny, 28, quit his new job as a doctor in Los Angeles and went to New York, where he beseeched officials at the United Nations to help. The diplomats told him to try his luck in Geneva. Officials at the U.S. State Department couldn’t do much more, stymied by China’s refusal to allow access. “They don’t even know if my dad is OK,” he said.
Daughter Anna, meanwhile, is attempting to free him from China. Having left her job as a clothing buyer, she flew to Hong Kong this summer and made her way across to Guangdong province, where she spends her days petitioning the government for mercy and trying to raise awareness of his case, including contacting U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke. “What’s happened to my father is so devastating,” she said. “It’s destroyed my family.”
Nolan Barkhouse, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, would not comment on the case due to privacy laws. But he stressed that diplomatic officials are trying to assist Wu “within the limits of our authority in accordance with international law.” Just what they can do is unclear. According to the State Department website, “the ability of the U.S. Embassy or Consulates General in China to provide you with consular protection is not afforded under the U.S.-China Consular Convention if you do not use your U.S. passport to enter China.”
For Wu’s family and supporters, the allegations of torture and coercion keep them awake at night. While those claims cannot be verified, human-rights organizations say it fits in with previous cases.
“In China, torture in detention is all too often standard operating procedure,” said Roseann Rife, who oversees East Asia for Amnesty International. “It puts all kinds of people who are in the hands of the police completely at their mercy.”
Beijing has acknowledged the use of torture, which Chinese law prohibits. But Rife says it remains a convenient tool for a regime that dismisses the rule of law. That leaves people like Wu and their families at a devastating disadvantage in the abyss of China’s legal system. “The courts can’t stop it and the police certainly aren’t going to stop it,” she said. “So who will?”