The first thing Daniel Hsu noticed about the room was that there were no sharp edges. The walls were covered with beige rubber, the table wrapped in soft, grey leather. White blinds covered two barred windows.
Five surveillance cameras recorded his movements, and two guards kept constant, silent watch. They followed Hsu to the shower and stood beside him at the toilet.
Lights blazed through the night. If he rolled over on his mattress, guards woke him and made him turn his face toward a surveillance camera that recorded him as he slept. He listened for sounds of other prisoners — a door slamming, a human voice. But he heard only the occasional roar of a passing train.
"First, keep healthy," Hsu told himself. "Second, keep strong."
He had no idea when or how he would get out.
Hsu is a U.S. citizen. He has not been convicted of any crime in China, yet he was detained there for six months in solitary confinement under conditions that could qualify as torture under international conventions. Authorities from eastern Anhui province placed exit bans on Hsu and his wife, Jodie Chen, blocking them from returning home to suburban Seattle in August 2017 and effectively orphaning their 16-year-old daughter in America.
Critics say the Chinese Communist Party's expanding use of exit bans to block people — including U.S., Australian and Canadian citizens and permanent residents — from leaving China reeks of hostage-taking and collective punishment. They also warn that it lays bare China's will to exert influence, not just over Chinese citizens in China, but also permanent residents and citizens of other countries.
"American citizens are too often being detained as de facto hostages in business disputes or to coerce family members to return to China — this is shocking and unacceptable behavior by the Chinese government and a clear violation of international law," said James P. McGovern, chair of the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China.
Hsu says Anhui authorities have been effectively holding them hostage in order to convince his father, Xu Weiming, to come back from the U.S. and face charges he embezzled 447,874 yuan (worth $63,000 today) over 20 years ago — an allegation Xu denies.
The COVID-19 pandemic has added grave new urgency to their desire to leave. Despite fear of retribution, the family is speaking out for the first time, offering a rare account of life inside China's opaque system of exit bans and secretive detention centers.
Their story is supported by Chinese court documents and correspondence and interviews with U.S. and Chinese government officials. Some details could not be independently verified but are in line with accounts from other detainees.
'Why are you not here?'
Five days before Hsu entered the smooth beige room at a Communist Party-run "education center" in Hefei, the capital of Anhui province, his stepdaughter, Mandy Luo, boarded a flight from Shanghai to Seattle alone. She had been on a family visit to China and was supposed to return with her mother to finish high school. But airport security had blocked her mother from boarding.
Mandy vomited for 10 hours on the flight home. When Luo felt bad, she liked to curl up on her mother's lap. But now it was just her, a barf bag and a snoring man next to her.
"Mom," she kept thinking, "why are you not here?"
The answer to that question lies in Chinese laws that give authorities broad discretion to block both Chinese citizens and foreign nationals from leaving the country. Minor children, a pregnant woman and a pastor — all with foreign passports — have been exit banned, according to people with direct knowledge of the cases.
The U.S., Canada and Australia have issued advisories warning their citizens that they can be prevented from leaving China over disputes they may not be directly involved in. People may not realize they can't leave until they try to depart.
"U.S. diplomats frequently raise the issue of exit bans and the need for transparency with the PRC government," a State Department spokesperson said in an email. "The Department has raised Mr. Hsu's case at the highest levels and will continue to do so until he is allowed to return home to the U.S."
"The misuse of exit bans is troubling," said a spokesman for Canada's Foreign Minister. "Promoting and protecting human rights is an integral part of Canada's foreign policy."
Australian consular cables obtained by the AP through a freedom of information request show that diplomats have repeatedly flagged concerns to Chinese counterparts about the growing number of exit bans on Australians.
Within China, exit bans have been celebrated as part of a best-practices toolkit for convincing corrupt officials to return to the motherland for prosecution, part of President Xi Jinping's sweeping campaign to purify the ruling Communist Party and shore up its moral authority. Many corruption suspects fled to the U.S., Australia and Canada, which do not have extradition treaties with China.
Requests for comment to Anhui Province's Commission for Discipline Inspection and Supervision, Public Security Department and procuratorate, as well as the province's foreign affairs and propaganda offices all went unanswered. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing declined to comment.
I don't have a Ferrari
Hsu was accused of being a co-conspirator in the corruption case against his father, Xu. The Hefei Intermediate People's Court found that Xu embezzled money for real estate in the 1990s, while serving as chairman of Shanghai Anhui Yu'an Industrial Corporation, a developer owned by the Anhui Provincial People's Government. At the time, Hsu was half a world away, studying accounting at the University of San Francisco.
Xu denies the charges. In a letter to the court, he wrote that the money was a housing stipend, vetted by a government audit committee and awarded to dozens of employees. He said he is the target of a political vendetta.
If he had really been interested in corruption, Xu added, he would have stolen far more than $63,000.
"If my dad's rich, OK, I deserve this maybe," said Hsu, who ran a barbecue restaurant in Bellevue, Washington, which he was forced to sell during his involuntary exile. "But I never enjoy anything. I don't have a Ferrari. I don't have a yacht. I'm just a small business owner. I work by my hands, cutting meat."
His interrogations came in fits and starts. He gazed at the smooth edges in his room and thought about hurting himself. He fantasized a Delta Force chopper would rescue him. The men would break through the walls and say, "You're free, sir. Come with us." No one came. He read sports magazines and the Bible.
"Try to sit in a room for three hours and tell me how do you feel, just by yourself. You have nothing," he said in an interview.
Before coming to the party education center, Hsu had spent 14 days in detention in Hefei, sharing a cell and one bucket toilet with two dozen men. Hsu asked police to send him back. At least there were other people, TV, chess. Even his cellmate who allegedly murdered his girlfriend was kind of nice.
In mid-September police gave Hsu a phone so he could convince his parents to return. His mother told him they'd written letters to Washington. Surely, there would be justice. "Be strong," she said. "I am proud of you."
Hsu's mother told him he was living in the dark. No, he argued, there is a window in my room: "I can sometimes see the sun and the moon."
Now, he said, he knows what she meant. "I knew nothing else, nothing that happens in the world, they closed everything," he said. "She told me, 'In your heart there should be a light. You should keep that light on.'"
After a few days, the phone was taken away. Hsu had been given a mission – convince his father to return – and he'd failed.
Hsu was being held under "residential surveillance in a designated location," a legal mechanism that allows detentions of up to six months without formal charges or judicial review in certain cases.
The United Nations has urged Beijing to halt the practice, saying it "may amount to incommunicado detention in secret places, putting detainees at a high risk of torture or ill-treatment."
China is a signatory to the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which defines torture as an intentional abuse of power by the state that causes severe physical or mental suffering. It signed, but did not ratify, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which precludes torture as well as "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment."
Joshua Rosenzweig, a deputy regional director at Amnesty International in Hong Kong, said that though residential surveillance sounds better than throwing someone in jail, in practice it's one of the most excruciating forms of detention under Chinese law. In Hsu's case, he said prolonged solitary confinement and 24-hour surveillance seemed designed to cause psychological suffering with the aim of coercing him to do something.
"That would clearly satisfy the criteria for torture and other ill treatment," Rosenzweig said. "The ability, inside a black box, to carry out this kind of coercion against someone — it's incredible this is allowed to go on."
Hsu set a new challenge for himself: He would convince his guards, who had been ordered not to speak to him, to tell him their names.
"You study me. I study you back," he said. "Who is stronger."
Over time, and late at night, his guards relaxed. Hsu discovered one was a fan of Manchester United. Others wanted to know what the schools were like in America and how much real estate cost. Eventually, he said, he got one guy to bring him a caramel macchiato from Starbucks.
In December, police announced Hsu's father had agreed to go back to China. Hsu was shocked. On Dec. 14, a consular officer came with news that his father had made a sworn statement declaring Hsu's innocence.
His mother also sent word that her husband's health was poor and he would postpone his return.
Hsu held his fists and began to shake.
The next morning, his minders yelled at him. They made him make a videotaped message. Hsu told his parents they should have kept their word and returned. He wrote a letter, telling them he was getting sick in his head, pulling his hair out, not sleeping.
The new rotation of guards refused to speak to him. He dreamed about his daughter and woke in the night, his face wet with tears.
Back in Seattle, Mandy was also struggling with solitude. Her mother's presence had been like the air she breathed, invisible until it was gone. She missed the security of knowing someone was in the next room, just in case.
She expanded her cooking repertoire beyond boiled eggs. She managed the garden, got the boiler fixed, put up her Christmas tree by herself and waded through college financial aid forms on her own, all while pulling straight A's and helping her grandmother fire off petitions to Washington.
"What I need to do gives me a lot of pressure," she said. "I have to be a mom and then be a student at the same time."
She didn't want to add to the general misery, so she boxed up the rage and helplessness. Instead of shouting at her relatives, she wept in her family's big, empty house.
"Why me?" she cried out, to no one in particular. "I'm only 16. What are you expecting of me?"
Who gets saved
On Feb. 11, 2018, near the end of Hsu's sixth month in detention, he was released. His wife drove nine hours to pick him up. They tossed his prison books in a dumpster and went out to dinner.
Hsu watched his wife eat. He couldn't bring himself to hug her.
He was so sorry.
Maybe he had been alone too long.
After sleeping under blazing lights for six months, he could no longer sleep in the dark. Shanghai's jostling crowds made him nervous. He kept crying.
In Chinese tradition, he reasoned, nothing is more important than a son. The father should come back, even at pain of death, for his son. But what, then, of the son? Hsu said if his father returned to China and something bad happened, he would never forgive himself.
Hsu's mother, Qin Peiyun, insisted she and Hsu's father would return to China only after Hsu and Chen, a U.S. green card holder, were safely back in Seattle.
"My husband and I go to China, we can't save Daniel and Jodie," Qin said in an interview. "If we go to China, they will destroy our whole family."
Hsu, 43, and Chen, 44, were living off savings. Their marriage was rapidly deteriorating. When they weren't fighting, they sat at home and stared at each other.
They couldn't say much on the phone because they figured their communications were monitored. It was a struggle to make their Americanized teenager understand how they could be stuck in China if they had done nothing wrong. Thousands of years ago, people who angered the Emperor risked having their entire family executed. But blood bonds and collective punishment were difficult for a person born in 2001 and living in Seattle to grasp.
Friends offered Hsu jobs or money to start a restaurant in Shanghai. But he always declined, worried he'd get them in trouble. He couldn't work legally because he had a U.S. passport with an expired visa and the Anhui authorities wouldn't give him paperwork needed to get a new one.
The U.S. Consulate in Shanghai lobbied intensively on their behalf. But nothing changed.
Hsu spent a lot of time at Starbucks. He realized that by sinking into the ruin of his life he was doing exactly what Anhui authorities wanted. The more miserable Hsu became, the more pressure it would put on his father to return. He decided to change things, starting with his marriage.
"We have to show them no matter how hard the situation, we are fine, we are better somehow," he told his wife. This might be their final chapter in China, so they should do their best to relish the country.
Chen got a job. They went out with friends, ate crawfish and went to the beach at Sanya.
In May 2019, immigration officers came to Hsu's home and told him they were going to deport him because his visa had expired. They warned him he'd never be able to return to China.
"I said, 'We can talk about that later, but deport me, please.'"
That same month a court notice went up outside their apartment saying the property would be auctioned.
"We still need a happy life," Hsu said. "We have to show people the positive side."
Tears were running down his face.
In June 2019, Hsu and Chen missed their daughter's high school graduation. In August, they recruited relatives to see her off to college. The days inched by.
"Jail, I know my release date," Hsu said. "I'm still in jail. The (expletive) China jail. And I don't know my release date."
In early April, at the request of Anhui authorities, Chen wrote a formal petition for her exit ban to be lifted.
"I miss my daughter so much, especially at this critical moment," she wrote. "I do hope to take care of her, side by side, to fulfill my duty as a mother."
She pledged to persuade her father-in-law to return to China, saying she would deepen her emotional bond with her in-laws to establish mutual trust, then explain the "tolerant and humanized approach" of Chinese justice. She would use her wisdom and emotional suasion to reassure them that "the party and government will be fair and impartial."
It was unclear why Chen's exit ban was lifted. Hsu would have to stay in China. "They told me if my dad is not coming back, I will never leave this country," he said.
Talking on FaceTime with her parents a week before her mother's departure, Mandy, now 19, began to cry over a minor disagreement, then found she couldn't stop. She cried so long and so deeply she could barely breathe, pouring out three years of stress and loneliness.
The morning of April 10, Chen and Hsu rode to Shanghai's Pudong International Airport in a diplomatic sedan, a small American flag on the hood flapping in the wind. The Shanghai consul general, Sean Stein, escorted Chen to the departure gate.
Chen's trip back to Seattle took more than 24 hours. Concerned she might have picked up COVID-19 on the journey, she took an Uber from the airport to the leafy cul-de-sac they call home. Her daughter and her mother-in-law were waiting outside in the dark.
It had been 971 days since Chen had touched her daughter.
"Finally, Mom's back," Chen said.
Mandy ached to embrace her mother, but her grandmother had her by the arm, holding her back. No one knew what terrible germs Chen might be carrying.
Chen had planned to self-quarantine for two weeks, but Mandy couldn't wait. She moved from her grandparents' house and went into quarantine with her mother.
"It's 50 percent over," Mandy said. "My dad is the other 50 percent."
Back in Shanghai, Daniel went home from Pudong airport and slept most of the day.
When he awoke, he was alone.