Analysis of Chinese court records shows eightfold increase in cases mentioning exit bans between 2016 and 2022
China is increasingly barring people, including foreign executives, from leaving the country, according to a report and research.
Scores of Chinese nationals and foreigners have been ensnared by exit bans, according to the report from the rights group Safeguard Defenders, while a Reuters analysis has found an apparent surge in court cases involving such bans in recent years.
Foreign business lobby groups are voicing concern about the trend, calling it a jarring message as the authorities say the country is open for business after three years of tight Covid-19 restrictions.
“Since Xi Jinping took power in 2012, China has expanded the legal landscape for exit bans and increasingly used them, sometimes outside legal justification,” the Safeguard Defenders report says.
The group estimates “tens of thousands” of Chinese citizens are banned from leaving at any one time. It also cites a 2022 academic paper that found 128 cases of foreigners being exit-banned between 1995 and 2019, including 29 Americans and 44 Canadians.
Focus on the exit bans comes as China-US tensions have risen over trade and security disputes and contrasts with China’s message that it is opening up to overseas investment and travel after the isolation of its Covid curbs.
The Reuters analysis of records on exit bans, from China’s supreme court database, shows an eightfold increase in cases mentioning bans between 2016 and 2022.
China last week beefed up its counter-espionage law, allowing exit bans to be imposed on anyone, Chinese or foreign, who is under investigation.
Most of the cases in the database referring to exit bans are civil, not criminal. Reuters did not find any involving foreigners or politically sensitive subversion or national security issues. By comparison, the US and EU impose travel bans on some criminal suspects but generally not for civil claims.
China’s ministry of public security did not respond to Reuters requests for comment on exit bans, including inquiries on how many individuals, including foreigners, are subject to them.
One person prevented from leaving China this year is a Singaporean executive at the US due-diligence firm Mintz Group, according to three people familiar with the matter. The company, the executive and China’s public security bureau did not respond to requests for comment.
Mintz said in late March that authorities had raided the firm’s China office and detained five local staff. The foreign ministry said at the time Mintz was suspected of engaging in unlawful business operations.
“Because of rising tensions between the US and China, the salience of this [exit ban] risk has risen,” said Lester Ross, a veteran lawyer in China who has handled exit ban cases.
“I’ve seen a rise in companies and entities being concerned about this and asking for our advice on how to prepare and reduce risks” of exit bans, said Ross, the head of the American chamber of commerce’s China policy committee.
Foreign businesses are concerned about the heightened scrutiny and the vague wording of the counter-espionage legislation, which says exit bans can be imposed on those who cause “harm to the national security or significant damage to national interests”.
In recent weeks, a number of foreign businesses have been inspected by Chinese authorities. In April, the authorities visited the offices of Bain, a US management consultancy, in Shanghai.
The EU chamber told Reuters in a statement: “At a time when China is proactively trying to restore business confidence to attract foreign investment, the exit bans send a very mixed signal.”
People barred from leaving China include Chinese people embroiled in financial disputes as well as rights defenders, activists and lawyers, and ethnic minorities such as Uyghurs in China’s north-western Xinjiang region, according to the Safeguard Defenders report.
According to a Chinese judicial report, 34,000 people were placed under exit bans in 2018, a 55% rise on the year before.Some activists say the wider use of exit bans reflects tighter security measures under President Xi.
“They can find any reason to stop you from leaving the country,” said Xiang Li, a Chinese rights activist who was denied exit for two years before escaping from China in 2017 and later receiving asylum in the US.
“China doesn’t have the rule of law,” she told Reuters. “The law is used to serve the purposes of the Chinese Communist party. It’s very effective.”