Separated from Charlotte Chou because of her incarceration ... Lincoln, 4, with his sister. He has spoken to his mother only once.

Separated from Charlotte Chou because of her incarceration ... Lincoln, 4, with his sister. He has spoken to his mother only once. Photo: Wolter Peeters

CHINA'S legal system has struck again against a successful Australian business person - this time a single mother who founded a private university in Guangzhou.

The case of Charlotte Chou has been kept quiet since she was taken from her home on June 24, 2008, while her one-year-old boy was asleep.

Ms Chou was interrogated while being deprived of sleep for several days, without access to a lawyer, and later convicted of bribery on the basis of those confessions, her family say. She was released in December 2009 and re-arrested at the prison gate.

Charlotte Chou, with her son Lincoln after he was born.

Charlotte Chou, with her son Lincoln after he was born.

The next chapter in Ms Chou's ordeal will take place next Tuesday when she will be tried for embezzlement.

Ms Chou's case is the fifth the Herald has exclusively revealed involving a successful Australian citizen being detained by Chinese police in murky circumstances. It is the third in Guangzhou, after the temporary "disappearance" in March of the influential blogger Yang Hengjun and the arrest in November of a businessman, Matthew Ng, who was tried two weeks ago.

Guangzhou has emerged as the preferred entry point to China for Australian ministers promoting trade and investment opportunities.

In July 2009 the Herald revealed the detention of the Rio Tinto executive Stern Hu and this year a secret espionage conviction against the businessman James Sun. "The common feature in all of these cases is that they are ethnic Chinese," said Donald Rothwell, professor of international law at the Australian National University.

He said it was unlikely Chinese authorities were targeting Australians but it was clear they "really make no distinction" between Chinese nationals and ethnic Chinese with foreign citizenship who return to work in China.

As with Mr Ng, supporters say Ms Chou has become entangled in a commercial dispute in which her adversaries have paid off Guangzhou's police, courts and procurator. The reason given for her being denied access to a lawyer for the first six weeks of her detention was that her case involved "state secrets".

She was later convicted of bribing a tax officer on the basis of her confessions.

When Ms Chou was released in December 2009, she was met by her sister Zou Ping, who had flown from Sydney. Police immediately detained her on fresh charges. At the prison gate Ms Chou was allowed one phone call to her son Lincoln, who had learnt to talk while living with her mother in Sydney. It is the only time she has heard him speak.

"He said 'mummy, mummy', but Charlotte was crying and said nothing to the baby," Ms Zou said. "And then they just took Charlotte to the car and drove her away."

Ms Chou moved from Guangzhou to Sydney in 1987 and received Australian citizenship

soon after. Lincoln, who is now 4, and an 18-year-old daughter are being raised by their grandmother in Sydney. Another son attends high school in Hong Kong. Ms Chou's embezzlement charge has morphed during her second detention and now involves a $30 million payment from her company to a personal account.

The sum was the repayment of a personal loan, for which there is proper documentation and a bank transaction trail, but police will not allow her to access those records, Ms Zou said.

Lincoln's father, a Chinese national, had gone into hiding to avoid the Chinese government and was in limited contact, Ms Zou said.

with Leesha McKenny