Businessman with close ties to Sam Sullivan detained in Chinese jail

Simon Chu, a Taiwanese-Canadian businessman with Vancouver ties, has been held without charge for nearly six months in China as result of a commercial dispute he was trying to resolve.

His family says Chu (also known as Chih-Lin Chu) hasn’t been allowed to speak with a lawyer since he was detained by police on May 17. His brother, Yow-Lin of Vancouver, is the only family member who has been able to visit — a brief, police-supervised encounter in September that came about only after Yow-Lin’s third trip to the city of Baoding, 190 km south of Beijing.

Former Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan, a close friend who is known as “Uncle Sam” to children in Chu’s extended family, travelled to China three weeks ago to meet with the Minister for Overseas Chinese, Li Haifeng. There he vouched for Chu’s reputation and pleaded for fair and expeditious resolution of the matter.

Sullivan has also made a similar case in letters to a variety of officials, including Chinese President Hu Jintao.

Sullivan said Li took his interventions seriously — she even interrupted their dinner meeting to make some calls about it — but he doesn’t know yet if anything has changed as a result.
Both Sullivan and Yow-Lin are circumspect in what they say on the record.

The former mayor, who speaks some Mandarin and has many high-level Chinese contacts from his time in office, has phrased his interventions in the politest-possible terms, and he has focused on fairness of the process — not the merits of Chu’s position in the case that sparked the detention. Both men say they want to be careful not to further jeopardize Simon Chu’s precarious position.

But the story that emerges is this: Chu, who is known in Vancouver through his holdings in the family-owned Plaza of Nations and as a co-owner with his brother of a large home they share when they’re both in the city, owns all or part of several businesses in China. They include a restaurant in Shanghai, where he lives most of the year, and a large textile factory in Baoding.

Until 2008 he was chairman of the Baoding factory, which employs 14,000. He stepped down from this senior post when he sold much of his holdings in the company, although he remained a shareholder.
In May, just days after the birth of the 42-year-old businessman’s first child, he received word that the factory was enmeshed in labour unrest, and the general manager had been arrested. So Chu made immediate arrangements to go to Baoding and try to straighten the matter out.

Yow-Ling said his brother normally travels on his Canadian passport. But, because notice was short and he needed a visa that he could not obtain in Taiwan, he went to China on his Taiwanese passport instead.
Sullivan said this means that, under Chinese law, Chu is considered Taiwanese. And this limits the ability and the willingness of Canadian officials to intervene, even though Chu holds Canadian citizenship.

Chu didn’t know it at the time, Yow-Lin said, but a rumour circulating around the factory maintained that the labour troubles were the result of a foreigner having run off with the money. This may have led to the problems that followed, although Chu hasn’t been formally charged with anything — only told he’s a suspect in a crime.

For the first month, Chu was isolated in a hotel. Although he was considered to be voluntarily helping the police with their inquiries, he wasn’t allowed to contact a lawyer or his family. Then he was arrested and moved to a jail in Baoding — a holding facility for suspects awaiting trial.

This kind of treatment of foreigners is not unknown in China. Indeed, it’s common enough that the Canadian foreign affairs department specifically warns dual citizens to travel on their Canadian passports.

In one of the more famous cases a few years ago, Australian citizen James Peng was held in jail for six years on trumped-up charges after his business dealings with the niece of the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping went sour. The story ended happily for him when he was eventually awarded $100 million Hong Kong (about $14 million Cdn) in a civil suit.

Yow-Lin said that when he visited his brother, he was warned that they could not discuss the case or the visit would be immediately ended. And his brother told him he did not want more visits from family — not even pictures of his fast-growing son, whom he hasn’t seen since he was less than a month old — for fear they would cause him to break down and cry.

Yow-Lin said it was difficult to assess his brother’s physical condition from behind the bars that separated them during this brief visit, but he appeared stressed and depressed.
“He said to tell the family not to worry too much.”

But for his brother, not to mention his wife or his 81-year-old mother, “That is hard to do.”
Byline: Don Cayo, Vancouver Sun