The e-mail, titled "An Innocent American Citizen Calling for Justice in China," arrived Sept. 24, 2002.
In the five-page document, Jude Shao described a Kafkaesque nightmare of trumped-up evidence, a faked confession and a fraudulent trial on tax-evasion charges that ended with him sentenced to 16 years in a dreary Chinese prison.
"Now, after four years of being secretly persecuted, I am finally able to tell the world for the first time this story of horror and injustice," Shao, 41, wrote from Shanghai's Qingpu prison in the e-mail forwarded to more than 300 classmates from the Stanford Business School class of 1993.
Caroline Pappajohn, an executive with a small nonprofit in San Francisco, didn't know Shao well. But the more she read, the angrier she became. She wasn't alone.
Within hours, e-mails expressing outrage and concern over Shao's plight were flying. Many offers of help, including Pappajohn's, were channeled to Chuck Hoover, 39, a marketing executive in Los Angeles and one of Shao's former roommates.
For months, Hoover and another classmate, Michael Smith, had been trying to figure out what to do about their friend, who had run into trouble with a trading company he operated in China. Arrested in 1998, Shao managed to send an e-mail to Hoover and Smith in December 2000, after he already had been tried, convicted and sentenced. They contacted the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai and attempted to talk to his Chinese attorney, but met with little success.
Hoover felt helpless. He knew nothing about China or its legal system. He feared that speaking out might embarrass his friend or anger the Chinese government. He knew that Shao had been warned by Chinese authorities to "be patient" and to not contact the foreign media.
"Perhaps a world-class injustice is unfolding right before your eyes," Shao wrote Hoover shortly before the class mailing. "But I'm feeling very lonely. The only way to win the case is to go public fully. Could I ask for your help?"
Home to one of the nation's premier business schools, Stanford's Palo Alto campus is an adrenaline-filled idea factory for future entrepreneurs and chief executives. A decade after graduation, many of Shao's classmates were collecting comfortable salaries and had acquired families and mortgages.
There was little reason for them to think about China as anything more than a rapidly developing country with KFC franchises, cell phones and increasingly efficient assembly lines.
Then Shao's message landed in their inboxes.
Pappajohn, who had worked selling telecommunications software overseas, knew that China was a challenging place to do business. Even so, she said, she could not imagine anything this unjust happening.
"It's one thing to deal with red tape and other hurdles," said Pappajohn, 37, who helps find jobs for troubled youths. "It's quite another to sacrifice 16 years of your life in a jail cell for holding to your business ethics and values."
Communicating via late-night e-mails, Hoover and Pappajohn quickly figured out that their best shot was getting the U.S. government to do battle. But first, they needed a "selling document" summarizing the complex events.
"Our first thought was we needed to work this through Washington," said Pappajohn, who had worked for Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) for three years before attending Stanford. "But it became obvious that this was a very complicated case and people needed some way of digesting it."
Shao had done much of the work for them. Soon after arriving at Qingpu prison, he started working on his defense. He asked his sister Jingli, a doctor in Shanghai, to bring company documents and legal books on her monthly visits. For a brief time, Shao was helping prison authorities and had access to a computer to send e-mail. But after he lost those privileges, he handwrote his messages and asked his sister or U.S. consular officials to send the e-mails for him. Prison officials monitor his correspondence.
Using materials compiled by Shao, Hoover wrote a "white paper" that became the centerpiece of the campaign.
Shao, the fourth child of a Shanghai businessman, graduated from Shanghai's Jiaotong University with a degree in computer science just as China was opening up its economy and sending its brightest students abroad to study. In 1986, he moved to the Boston area to learn English and got a job at Digicom Computers.
After a few years, he was accepted by Stanford. During his two years in Palo Alto, Shao became close to Hoover and half a dozen others. They played golf and went to movies and dance clubs together.
Shortly before graduation, Shao showed classmates a Power Point presentation on his plan to launch a trading company in China. The pitch was persuasive, according to Alex Muromcew, one of 16 people who invested at least $5,000 in the venture.