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."
Associated Press writer Charles Hutzler in Beijing contributed to this report.
Earlier on HuffPost:
May 1, 2011: President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011. Seated, from left, are: Brigadier General Marshall B. "Brad" Webb, Assistant Commanding General, Joint Special Operations Command; Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough; Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Standing, from left, are: Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; National Security Advisor Tom Donilon; Chief of Staff Bill Daley; Tony Blinken, National Security Advisor to the Vice President; Audrey Tomason Director for Counterterrorism; John Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism; and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Please note: a classified document seen in this photograph has been obscured. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
May 8, 2009: President Barack Obama bends over so the son of a White House staff member can pat his head during a family visit to the Oval Office May 8, 2009. The youngster wanted to see if the President's haircut felt like his own. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Dec. 3, 2009: President Barack Obama fist-bumps custodian Lawrence Lipscomb in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building following the opening session of the White House Forum on Jobs and Economic Growth, Dec. 3, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
July 4, 2012: President Barack Obama holds a baby while greeting guests during an Independence Day celebration on the South Lawn of the White House, July 4, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
July 26, 2012: President Barack Obama holds a Cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House, July 26, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Oval Office Chase
July 9, 2012: President Barack Obama runs around his desk in the Oval Office with Sarah Froman, daughter of Nancy Goodman and Mike Froman, Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economics, July 9, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
June 13, 2012: President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama wave goodbye to President Shimon Peres of Israel on the North Portico of the White House following the Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony and dinner in his honor, June 13, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
April 23, 2012: President Barack Obama tours the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., with Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Holocaust survivor, and Sara Bloomfield, museum director, April 23, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
June 11, 2012: President Barack Obama talks with Betty White in the Oval Office, June 11, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Venus In Transit
April 24, 2012: President Barack Obama stops to view the moon and Venus before boarding Marine One in Boulder, Colo., April 24, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
'Sweet Home Chicago'
Feb. 21, 2012: President Obama joins in singing "Sweet Home Chicago" during the "In Performance at the White House: Red, White and Blues" concert in the East Room of the White House, Feb. 21, 2012. Participants include, from left: Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews, Jeff Beck, Derek Trucks, B.B. King, and Gary Clark, Jr. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
March 20, 2011: "The Obama family was scheduled to tour the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio before dinner one night. But when heavy fog rolled in, they canceled the visit. After dinner, the fog had dissipated somewhat so they decided to make the drive up the mountain. It was quite clear when they arrived and then the fog started to roll back in. I managed to capture this silhouette as they viewed the statute one last time just before departure." (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
June 11, 2011: "The top photograph shows the President having a water gun fight with his daughter Sasha on her birthday weekend at Camp David. Unbeknownst to me, David Lienemann captured a similar photo of the Vice President on the very same day." (Official White House Photos by Pete Souza and David Lienemann)
Dec. 11, 2011: President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and their daughters, Malia, left, and Sasha, right, sit for a family portrait in the Oval Office, Dec. 11, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Oct. 14, 2011: President Barack Obama tours the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C., Oct. 14, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Oct. 11, 2011: "This photograph by Chuck Kennedy has to catch your eye. It shows Guinness Book of World Records holder John Cassidy performing a balloon act for First Lady Michelle Obama in the Diplomatic Reception Room following a Let's Move event." (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)
June 21, 2011: First Lady Michelle Obama meets with former President Nelson Mandela of South Africa at Mandela's home in Houghton, South Africa, June 21, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Samantha Appleton)
May 29, 2011: President Barack Obama greets Hugh Hills, 85, in front of his home in Joplin, Mo., May 29, 2011. Hills hid in a closet during the tornado, which destroyed the second floor and half the first floor of his house. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
June 9, 2011: President Barack Obama greets children at a day care facility adjacent to daughter Sasha's school in Bethesda, Md., following her 4th grade closing ceremony, June 9, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Jan. 10, 2011: President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama walk towards the White House after observing a moment of silence for the victims of the Arizona shooting, on the South Lawn, Jan. 10, 2011. White House staff joined the President and First Lady for the moment of silence.(Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)
March 7, 2011: President Barack Obama, Prime Minister Julia Gillard of Australia, and members of the Australian and American delegations look up at the presidential seal in the Oval Office ceiling following their bilateral meeting, March 7, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
May 31, 2010: "The skies opened up on Memorial Day outside of Chicago. When the lightning began, the Secret Service told the President that it was too dangerous to proceed. He took the stage by himself and informed the audience that his speech was canceled and that for everyone's safety, they should return to their busses. Later, he boarded a few of the busses to thank them for attending and apologized for not being able to speak." (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
July 20, 2010: President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron walk across the South Lawn of the White House, July 20, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
May 28, 2010: President Barack Obama and Lafourche Parish President Charlotte Randolf, left, inspect a tar ball as they look at the effect the BP oil spill is having on Fourchon Beach in Port Fourchon, La., May 28, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)
March 21, 2010: President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and senior staff, react in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, as the House passes the health care reform bill, March 21, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
March 31, 2010: President Barack Obama practices his pitching form with personal aide Reggie Love and Jake Levine in the Rose Garden of the White House, March 31, 2010. The President threw out the ceremonial first pitch on opening day of the baseball season prior to the game between the Washington Nationals and the Philadelphia Phillies.
Feb. 1, 2009: "During a Super Bowl watching party in the White House theatre, the President and First Lady join their guests in watching one of the TV commercials in 3D." (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
March 15, 2009: "The Obama family was introduced to a prospective family dog at a secret greet on a Sunday. After spending about an hour with him, the family decided he was the one. Here, the dog ran alongside the President in an East Wing hallway. The dog returned to his trainer while the Obama's embarked on their first international trip. I had to keep these photos secret until a few weeks later, when the dog was brought 'home' to the White House and introduced to the world as Bo." (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
Moment Of Reflection
Jan. 20, 2009: "President-elect Barack Obama was about to walk out to take the oath of office. Backstage at the U.S. Capitol, he took one last look at his appearance in the mirror." (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
Dec. 19, 2009: "Snowball in hand, the President chases Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel on the White House colonnade. To escape, Rahm ran through the Rose Garden, which unfortunately for him, was knee-deep in snow." (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
Dec. 10, 2009: President Barack Obama looks at the Nobel Peace Prize medal for the first time at the Norwegian Nobel Institute in Oslo, Norway, Dec. 10, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Jan. 16, 2010: "President Obama had called on the two former Presidents to help with the situation in Haiti. During their public remarks in the Rose Garden, President Clinton had said about President Bush, 'I've already figured out how I can get him to do some things that he didn't sign on for.' Later, back in the Oval, President Bush is jokingly asking President Clinton what were those things he had in mind." (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
Oct. 8, 2009: President Barack Obama watches as members of the National Naval Medical Center's Marine Wounded Warrior basketball team play on the White House basketball court, Oct. 8, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Shoot The J
Oct. 8, 2009: President Barack Obama takes a shot during a game with Cabinet secretaries and members of Congress on the White House basketball court, Oct. 8, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Aug. 16, 2009: President Barack Obama looks at the Grand Canyon in Arizona on Aug. 16, 2009. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
April 21, 2009: President Barack Obama and Sen. Ted Kennedy walk down the South Lawn sidewalk at the White House April 21, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
July 10, 2009: President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama meet with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican on July 10, 2009. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
July 13, 2009: President Barack Obama feigns a punch while talking about health care reform with Nancy-Ann DeParle, Peter Orszag, Phil Schiliro and Larry Summers in the Outer Oval Office, July 13, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
June 26, 2009: President Barack Obama jokingly reacts to news that staffer Nora Becker will be leaving to pursue a joint MD and PhD in healthcare economics, during the White House staff picnic on the South Lawn, June 26, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
June 2, 2009: President Barack Obama and former First Lady Nancy Reagan walk side-by-side through Center Hall in the White House, June 2, 2009. To the left of Mrs. Reagan hangs her official White House portrait as First Lady. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
June 4, 2009: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recounts a story to President Barack Obama, Senior Advisors David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett, outside the Sultan Hassan Mosque in Cairo, Egypt, June 4, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
June 4, 2009: President Barack Obama tours the Egypt's Great Sphinx of Giza (left) and the Pyramid of Khafre, June 4, 2009. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
Behind The Camera
Feb. 18, 2009: President Barack Obama takes aim with a photographer's camera backstage prior to remarks about providing mortgage payment relief for responsible homeowners at Dobson High School, Mesa, Ariz., Feb. 18, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Jan. 21, 2009: President Barack Obama walks into the Oval Office for his first full day in office, Jan. 21, 2009. His Personal Aide Reggie Love stands nearby. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)