China is increasing the use of exit bans to prevent foreign visitors, including Australians, from leaving the country even if they are only related to someone involved in a legal dispute or wanted by the authorities.
Lawyers and diplomats say there has been an increase in China’s use of the measure, which allows immigration officials to stop someone from leaving the country even if they are not suspected of a crime. In many cases, they are kept in the country because they are related to someone involved in a business or legal dispute.
Australian citizens are among those who have been refused permission to leave China, in some cases for years at a time.
The use of exit bans by China is a not a new practice, but lawyers and diplomats told The Australian Financial Review it is becoming more common as China’s leaders crack down on corruption and also dissidents who question the ruling Communist Party’s authority.
The issue gained prominence last week after The New York Times reported on an American family, including two teenagers, who were unable to leave China because their father was wanted for fraud. The US State Department issued a travel warning in January, saying exit bans were a risk and US vice-president Mike Pompeo has raised the issue with China.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) confirmed “some” Australians had reported being banned from leaving China as a result of a commercial or legal dispute involving family members.
“In most cases, individuals report resolving the matter with Chinese authorities within a relatively short period,” a DFAT spokesperson said. DFAT would not say how many Australian citizens had been subject to an exit ban in China, or whether any remained in the country.
It is believed some cases relate to business disputes, while others are linked to Chinese nationals accused of corruption who have become Australian citizens.
While there have not been any high-profile cases of Australians being detained in China since executives from James Packer’s Crown Resorts staff were arrested in 2016, China’s opaque legal system remains a risk for doing business in China.
It is a growing concern for US officials in China, and the Australian government is believed to have also raised the matter with China as part of regular engagements on consular issues.
DFAT updated its Travel Advice for China to include a separate section on exit bans in August 2017, warning Australians did not have to be directly involved in a legal matter to be prevented from leaving the country.
“Some Australians have reported they have been subjected to an exit ban and prevented from leaving China as a result of a commercial or legal dispute involving family members,” it said.
“Some Australians have been restricted from leaving China for extended periods of time, sometimes many years, because of this,” it said.
Australian academic Feng Chongyi, who was interrogated by security officials while visiting China in 2017 and then prevented from leaving the country, has first-hand account of the use of exit bans.
“It is a widely applied penalty to visitors. You do not know until you get to the last barrier of [Immigration] at the airport. Then you are told you are not allowed to leave because you are a danger to security,” Professor Feng told the AFR.
“That is a blanket charge,” he said.
“They won’t give you any detail.
“If you ask the officers . . . what is going on they will tell you they are only executing orders from above.
“But many of these people are not political dissidents or political prisoners. It might be because their father or husband was on a list.
“Now the punishment is being applied to them.”
Prominent Shanghai lawyer Si Weijiang, who has represented Australians detained in China, agreed the use of exit bans was a risk for visitors to China even if they were not directly involved in a business or legal dispute.
“There is no transparency about this procedure. It is very easy to put a person on this list. You don’t get any judicial remedy.,” he said.
“Even if you are a foreigner you are obliged to follow China’s laws,” Mr Si, who was subject to an exit ban himself for several years, told the AFR.
He said in China, the children of people wanted for a crime could be seen as “liable”, and it made no difference if you were a Chinese national, an Australian citizen or a dual citizen.
Mr Si represented a former Australian public servant Carl Mather, who served six months in prison in prison in 2012.
Mr Mather was sentenced after two men involved in a business dispute with his wife claimed they were injured in an altercation with him at his home in the eastern city of Nanjing. He now lives in New Zealand.
His wife, Jenny Xie, who was in China visiting relatives last week, told the AFR she knew from first-hand experience how a corrupt legal system in China can still catch out foreigners whether they are guilty or not. “Of course there are risks doing business anywhere in the world but, no, the legal system in China has not improved,” she said.
“Because of the international environment [trade tensions with the United States] it can only get worse in the future. My advice is to stay away from politics.
“For small business like me, we are small potatoes. But for big business this is more difficult,” she said.
Ms Xie said she had been in touch with other Australians who had run into problems in China after being caught up in business or legal disputes.
One target for the Chinese authorities are former officials caught up in the government’s anti-corruption campaign who are now living in Australia.
Up to four Chinese nationals in Australia were singled out in the latest list of Beijing’s “most wanted” fugitives under President Xi Jinping’s drive to bring allegedly corrupt former officials back to the country to confess to their crimes.
Australia does not have an extradition treaty with China.
Last year, the Australian Federal Police and China’s Ministry of Public Security signed an agreement formalising the rules under which Chinese authorities can operate in Australia.
The deal sought to stop alleged coercion after Chinese police travelled to Melbourne in 2015 to persuade a bribery suspect to return home.
by Michael Smith