March 5, 2024

China’s use of exit bans leaves Americans at risk of being arbitrarily detained

Sweeping “exit bans” and arbitrary detentions in China are having a chilling effect, among not just the Chinese diaspora with ties to their homeland but also international businesses increasingly anxious about operating there, Western experts and human rights watchdogs say.

Under President Xi Jinping’s decadelong rule, China has become more authoritarian by seeking to control many aspects of public life, from internet censorship and rewriting high school textbooks to imposing ideological crackdowns on the music and entertainment industries.

The Chinese government rejects these characterizations. But for many people and businesses with links to China, operating there has only become more difficult. Its increased use of so-called exit bans and sweeping new counterespionage laws are creating a hostile environment for foreign business, according to experts.

These changes have altered the life of one naturalized American citizen from Shanghai who asked not to be named to protect family and friends still living in China. 

Before the pandemic lockdowns, he would travel to Shanghai every two years to visit his family and friends. But post-Covid things started to change, he said, and after a recent State Department advisory against traveling to China, combined with news reports about people being detained for no reason, he now thinks twice before booking a flight.

“Before Covid we used to go there every other year. And every time we went back it changed so much, generally in the right direction. There were more people and the city was getting fancier,” he said. “But since Covid, there were so many things that happened, especially the lockdown in Shanghai, and the political situation is very different.” 

He said he would return in the event of a family emergency but wants to avoid it if at all possible. 

“I don’t just want to go back” because officials can “stop you for whatever and you cannot leave,” he said. “I’m not saying I’m sure I’m going to be stopped, but there is a possibility and that’s a concern, especially as I have a family here.”

It was against this backdrop that the State Department issued its advisory in late June, urging Americans to “reconsider travel” to mainland China because of “arbitrary enforcement of local laws, including in relation to exit bans, and the risk of wrongful detentions.”

U.S. citizens of Chinese descent “may be subject to additional scrutiny and harassment,” the advisory reads, with officials potentially using these bans to pressure the family members of alleged dissidents abroad and gain leverage over foreign governments.

Andrew Scobell, a distinguished fellow at the United States Institute of Peace, an independent Washington think tank funded by Congress, said China has “really ratcheted up the intimidation and it’s meant to cow people into silence.” 

“But it will have adverse effects, including intimidating people to the extent that they won’t go back” and “intimidating CEOs and other business leaders,” he added. 

Part of the issue is that China does not recognize dual citizenship, creating complications for naturalized Americans of Chinese descent.

A man talks to another person through a makeshift barricade to control entry and exit to a residential compound in Wuhan, China, in March.Getty Images

Beijing believes the global Chinese population have a “shared cultural background, irrespective of their nationality anywhere else” and they “owe a debt of cultural obligation to China,” according to David Lampton, a professor emeritus at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.

These people feel “particularly vulnerable” to arbitrary action by China, which feels “perfectly unconstrained to do with you what they want — irrespective of what other nationality documents you may hold,” he said. People with “dual travel documents don’t necessarily know what the rules are,” he added. “You can think you’re subject to American consular protection and so on but that may in fact not be the case.”

This comes as relations between Washington and Beijing continue to cool off, with President Joe Biden characterizing his presidency as a U.S.-led democratic struggle against the autocracies, namely China. He and others want to “de-risk” their relationship with Beijing, in theory continuing lucrative trade but restricting some exports, such as microchips, while retaining the right to criticize China over human rights and other alleged malpractices.

China frequently bristles at what it sees as foreign meddling and has denied the allegations made in the travel advisory.

“China welcomes the people and businesses of all countries,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said when asked about it on July 10. “We are committed to protecting their safety and lawful rights and interests in China in accordance with the law, including their freedom of entry and exit.”

On the same day, China’s Foreign Ministry issued a warning to Chinese people in the U.S.

“There have been frequent incidents of gun violence and discrimination against Asians in the United States,” it said. It reminded “Chinese citizens in the U.S. to pay close attention to the local social security situation” and “beware of falling into the tricks and traps of the U.S.” 

Human rights watchdogs and independent international analysts say the evidence suggests Beijing’s protestations of innocence are unfounded.

Since 2018, Xi’s China has passed or amended five laws authorizing exit bans, bringing the total to 15, according to the Spain-based human rights group Safeguard Defenders. Mentions of exit bans have skyrocketed eightfold in China’s Supreme People’s Court database, it said.

These bans have been used for years to target Uyghurs, the mostly Muslim ethnic group that Washington and others say Beijing persecutes. But the bans’ reach is widening, according to Safeguard Defenders, encompassing relatives of activists and “so-called fugitives” living outside of China, as well as “human rights defenders, businesspeople, officials and foreigners,” the group said in an April report. These bans are often complex, vague and impossible to appeal, it said.

Furthermore, on July 1, China updated its counterespionage law, broadening the definition of spying and banning the transfer of any data the government deems related to national security. Fear is rife within the international business community that this could be used to target anyone indiscriminately.

Even before it was updated, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce warned in April that the law was “a matter of serious concern for the investor community.” It said in a statement that it cast “a wide net over the range of documents, data or materials considered relevant to national security.” This additional scrutiny “dramatically increases the uncertainties and risks” of doing business in China, it added.

The reach of Xi’s China does not end at its borders. In April, two people in New York were arrested on charges of operating an illegal Chinese police station, part of what Safeguard Defenders says is a global network to monitor dissidents that stretches to the United Kingdom, Germany and the Netherlands, all of which have opened parallel investigations. China denies this, saying the facilities are volunteer-run sites assisting Chinese nationals with renewing driver’s licenses and other services.

This landscape risks mainland China going the way of Hong Kong, which saw an exodus of intellectuals and entrepreneurs when Beijing introduced a new national security law in 2020 that critics said eroded its historical freedoms.

“It isn’t just ideological suppression, it can be a tool in business relations gone sour,” said Lampton at Johns Hopkins. Chinese officials “could snatch” someone involved in a business deal “off the street and say, ‘You’re not leaving until we’ve resolved this.’”

For the unnamed naturalized American citizen from China, all of this presents an uncertain future, with his homeland subject to the chaotic whims of geopolitics.

“I think it’s going to get better, maybe in a year or two,” he said. “It depends on what happens between the U.S. and China.”

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