Graduates in Stanford Business School's class of 1993 had plenty of good news to share at a 15-year reunion this month.
Caroline Pappajohn exulted in her role as an auntie to nine children. Cynthia Dai told of trading her six-figure consulting job to teach for a while. Chuck Hoover's Internet start-up was taken public.
But when the subject turned to Jude Shao, participants said, the mood was sober. For the last decade, the 45-year-old has been in Qingpu Prison here. Behind bars, he learned that his father had passed away and that his wife was divorcing him. His main link to the outside world has come from his mother and older sister, who live in Shanghai and have been allowed to visit him once a month, for 30 minutes each.
Shao, a U.S. citizen who returned to his native Shanghai for business, received a 16-year sentence for alleged tax evasion and fraud. He has steadfastly maintained his innocence.
Although legal experts at People's University in Beijing reviewed his case and determined that Shao deserved a retrial, his appeal to China's supreme court was rejected. His requests for parole have gone nowhere, despite repeated efforts by Shao's Stanford classmates, human rights activists and members of Congress urging China's government to free Shao.
But now there are stirrings of hope.
Human rights talks
China and the U.S. are expected soon to resume dialogue on human rights, which was suspended in 2004. In a February meeting, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice mentioned Shao, along with two Chinese nationals, to China's foreign minister, Yang Jiechi. With the Summer Olympics coming up and Beijing needing to buff up its image, tarnished by the crisis in Tibet, some China watchers think this may be the season when the doors open for Shao.
"I'm a bit optimistic," said John Kamm, director of the Dui Hua Foundation, a San Francisco-based group that works to free political prisoners in China. Dui Hua, founded in 1999, last week said it had asked China to release political prisoners as a goodwill gesture before the Beijing Olympics in August.
"The conditions might be ripe for the Chinese side to see the value of releasing him," said Kamm, who has spoken to Chinese officials about Shao on numerous occasions.
There's been no official word on when the human rights dialogue would resume, and American officials are reluctant to comment on Shao's prospects. The U.S. Consulate in Shanghai says it has made 101 visits to see him, most recently on April 15. At that time, Shao "was in excellent health and good spirits," a spokesperson said. In the past, Shao sought a medical parole because of a heart condition that he developed at Qingpu.
By Chinese law, prisoners can be eligible for parole after they have served more than half of their original sentence. Shao crossed that point two years ago.
"We don't understand why he's still in jail," said Hoover, 43, Shao's former roommate at Stanford and a leader of the Free Jude Shao campaign mounted by his classmates.
Qingpu Prison referred media inquiries to Shanghai's Judicial Bureau, which didn't respond to a written request for an interview about Shao's case.
But Zhu Hui, a staff member at Qingpu's section overseeing foreign prisoners, said that whether an individual is paroled "depends on various situations, on the crime and the charge."
Asked about Shao, Zhu replied: "We have already explained very clearly to him and his family."
Shao's family declined to comment. But it is generally known that foreigners don't benefit equally from China's parole provisions, in part, people say, because China and the U.S. don't have an extradition agreement.
"It's harder to monitor these [foreign] prisoners and to manage their situation during parole," said Lin Fuming, a criminal lawyer at DueBound Law Offices in Beijing.
Even so, Kamm says that shouldn't be a problem in this case. Shao has "made it clear he's willing to submit to [Shanghai] police supervision," Kamm said. "He is being arbitrarily detained, and that's in violation of Chinese law." Shao's classmates contend that also is a violation of China's obligations of nondiscrimination under the World Trade Organization.
Shao's troubles began in the summer of 1997 when local tax auditors arrived at his company's office in Shanghai. Shao was importing medical equipment from the U.S. Auditors confiscated his business records, and a few days later a high-ranking official asked Shao for about $60,000 to stop the investigation, according to Free Jude Shao. Shao refused to pay the bribe, his supporters say.
In the spring of 1998 he was arrested in Shanghai and taken to a detention center, where he was held in isolation for 26 months before a Shanghai court convicted and sentenced him to 16 years in prison, with credit for the months he was detained.
Shao wasn't allowed to speak with his attorney before or during the trial, friends say. But at Qingpu, they say, Shao researched his case and accumulated evidence, including duplicate books that he kept in San Francisco that showed the accusations were false.
Shao's friends say he has made good use of his time at Qingpu, considered one of China's better prisons. Among other things, Shao is pursuing a law degree through a correspondence course offered by the University of Honolulu.
MBAs plot strategy
Even so, Shao's classmates say he was sorely missed at the recent reunion in Palo Alto. On that Saturday morning, several dozen alums gathered at the business school's main building and, like an MBA project, held a brainstorming session on Shao.
Their focus: how to make sure Shao is top priority for Washington when U.S.-China human rights dialogue resumes; and the possible legal remedies with the WTO and the United Nations.
"We're always hopeful," Hoover said.
Near the close of the Save Jude Shao presentation, Pappajohn read a letter from Shao to the class of '93.
"From the bottom of my heart, I say thank you," it began. "Without your support, I cannot imagine how I could have survived the ordeal to this day. . . . I'll see you all at our 20th reunion."