Oct. 10—After he moved to the Boston area six years ago, Jade Cheng and his wife traveled north one day to scout places to live.
He recalled his wife reading aloud the Welcome to New Hampshire sign, along with the state's legendary motto. Unjustly imprisoned for seven months in his native China, Cheng was immediately drawn to the immortal words "Live Free or Die."
"I said, 'Oh my God, That's what I am. That fits my story, that fits my spirit. This is our place,'" said Cheng, who now lives in downtown Manchester.
Cheng's 210 days in a jail nine years ago is the centerpiece of an ongoing lawsuit against foreign and domestic subsidiaries of technology giant Hewlett-Packard.
Cheng, his former employer and two fellow Chinese citizens fault the international corporation for making misleading statements to Chinese authorities about their mutual business venture and then moving slowly to free Cheng and his two co-workers. Those statements from HP, Chinese police told him, were the reason for his imprisonment.
"It was a hell in real life," Cheng said during an interview about his time in the Beijing Haiden Detention Center.
Then a 32-year-old tech executive on a career track, he was crammed into a 300-square-foot cell with 45 criminals.
Prison pecking order meant he had to sleep close to the squat toilet. He endured cold showers, little food and hours of sitting motionless and silent.
He had no face-to-face contact with his relatives and limited time with his lawyer. The Chinese justice system offered few hopes for acquittal.
Their lawsuit is now years old, and Cheng and his former employer, the Boston-based Integrated Communications & Technologies Inc., are ramping up their visibility in the case.
A communications firm helps to get their story out. Cheng and ICT owner Alexander Styller give media interviews. And a website tells their story and provides access to documents in their favor.
"We want justice. We want the truth to come out. We want HP to take responsibility," Styller said.
A spokesman for Hewlett Packard Enterprise, one of the subsidiaries in the suit, encouraged a reporter to comb the voluminous documentation in the case.
"We categorically reject these allegations and look forward to presenting our case in court," said Adam Bauer.
How it started
ICT buys and re-sells excess and end-of-life computer parts and components. In the early 2010s, it had nearly 50 employees in offices in Boston, Dublin and China, said Styller, the founder and chief executive.
In 2011, ICT signed a $1 million deal with HP subsidiaries to acquire used equipment and re-sell in China, where Cheng was ICT's director of Asia-Pacific markets. According to their court filings, it was to be an easy sale. The equipment had been used for less than a year in India and was being provided by HP's India subsidiary. It had been manufactured by HP's Chinese subsidiary, H3C, and it was expected to find eager customers in China, where the H3C brand was valued.
But the product was not as described. Much of the equipment was damaged, rusted and scratchy. And as Cheng and his two employees tried to sell it, H3C complained to Chinese officials that the transceivers were counterfeit, and the three were selling counterfeit HP parts.
Initially, Cheng's two subordinates were arrested. About a month after their arrest, Cheng was taken into custody when he visited the prison to advocate for their release.
Cheng's account of that day quotes Chinese police: "H3C official statements are powerful enough for the police to arrest you. We trust H3C. We do not trust you."
He was imprisoned on Dec. 21, 2012, in Cell 202. The inmates slept head to foot. He had to share a thin blanket. Leaders in the cell struck him when he did not speak up.
He had to squat silently for hours. Meat was provided only once a week, and the cell bosses picked most of it out for themselves.
"Even though I got the urge to vomit after seeing the fat and grease that floated on the top of the soup, people devoured it as quickly as possible," he wrote.
Eventually, he was transferred to other cells. While the treatment improved slightly, the further he went into the depths of the prison, the lower his chances of being freed became.
He eventually took jobs he cherished because of the distraction: cleaning floors with a towel and toilets and sink with a toothbrush.
"I know you had a pretty noble life outside, but you are here for a reason," one cell boss told him.
In July 2013, he was released on bail. After a year, he was cleared of any crimes.
What's now at stake
Today, he and his Brazilian-born wife live in the Flats, a downtown Manchester apartment building with efficiency units. He became a U.S. citizen earlier this year and earns a living acquiring and reselling clothing and apparel.
If the case ever goes to trial, it will be held in U.S. District Court in Massachusetts. The lengthy court case involves judicial findings and orders that benefit both sides.
In court records, Hewlett-Packard said it provided genuine parts to ICT, and the company worked to free the three but was powerless to do so.
HP also faults Styller, saying ICT did not have proper licenses, smuggled goods past customs and evaded taxes. It questions whether he inserted the counterfeit transceivers into the sales mix.
"At bottom, this lawsuit exists not because (Hewlett-Packard) did anything wrong, but because ICT endangered its salespeople," company lawyers wrote.
Styller dismisses those allegations and said Chinese officials have never charged his company with such transgressions.
It's unclear why Cheng was finally released. In court papers, the company insists it had no power over Chinese authorities, but HP eventually corresponded with Chinese authorities about the case.
It took another three months for Cheng to be released after an HP subsidiary sent a letter in April 2013.
Styller, a Russian immigrant, said the case is personal for him. His grandfather's brother died in a Soviet gulag, and he was not going to endure a similar fate for his employees.
He believes HP wanted the three jailed because their release would prove that HP's India subsidiary supplied counterfeit transceivers to ICT, a violation of the contract and something that could put the company at odds with Chinese authorities.
They sit down later this month in a court-ordered resolution hearing.
"They need to start firing people, start investigating, start demanding answers," Styller said.
For his part, Cheng said he is a "small person." He is the only child of farmers who earn about $700 a year in China. Had he been found guilty of national security crimes, which he said was possible, he could have been executed.
"HP attempted to take away my life. They disrupted my life, disrupted my happiness."