The Chinese government has significantly increased the use of exit bans to stop people – Chinese and foreign nationals alike – from leaving the country since top leader Xi Jinping took power in 2012, according to a new report describing how a web of vague laws are being expanded for political reasons.
The report comes amid growing concern about the environment for foreign businesses in China, after the wide-ranging overhaul last week of the country’s espionage law and raids on corporate consultancies Mintz Group and Bain & Co.
“Anyone may be a target – human rights defenders, businesspeople, officials and foreigners,” the rights group Safeguard Defenders said in the report, “Trapped: China’s Expanding Use of Exit Bans.”
The report said that the Chinese Communist Party has used exit bans to silence activists, intimidate foreign journalists, control ethnic and religious groups, and pressure people to return to China to face investigation – and that evidence suggested the number of politically targeted exit bans had grown in the past five years.
“The report shows that those anecdotal cases that we read about now and then are not isolated incidents but part of a fast growing trend,” said Laura Harth, the group’s campaign director.
Beijing has added to the number of laws regarding exit bans since 2018, according to the report, expanding the ambiguity surrounding activities that could run afoul of the rules.
“China has continued to introduce new laws and regulations on exit bans, further complicating and confusing the legal landscape,” said the report.
A review by The Washington Post identified seven laws and regulations enacted or amended in that time period that provided for exit bans.
Exact statistics on exit bans are not available in China’s opaque bureaucracy, but Safeguard Defenders found a number of indicators showing that their use had risen significantly.
These include the number of times exit bans were mentioned in the Supreme People’s Court’s official database rising eightfold between 2016 and 2020. “Even though the number of entries does not equal the number of exit bans, this dramatic jump likely mirrors a similar trend in exit bans recorded on the database (mostly civil disputes),” the report said.
China’s Ministry of Public Security did not respond to questions about how many individuals are subject to exit bans.
While Beijing has recently insisted the country is open for business, under Xi’s leadership it has repeatedly cracked down on the private sector and moved to control information flows.
In recent weeks, foreign businesses operating in China have had growing cause for concern. In March, authorities raided the Beijing office of U.S. due-diligence company Mintz and detained five local staff members. The company’s Singaporean executive is unable to leave China, according to the Reuters news agency.
The expanded use of exit bans and detentions of foreign business executives, or employees of their companies, has heightened concerns among the international business community, said Lester Ross, a Beijing-based lawyer and chair of the policy committee at the American Chamber of Commerce in China.
“Companies really have to swallow hard before allowing the risk to their own employees of being detained,” said Ross.
One challenge is that discussing an exit ban rarely helps the person facing it, said Ross.
Authorities have also put imports from U.S. chip maker Micron Technology under review, detained an employee of Japanese drugmaker Astellas Pharma and questioned staff at consulting firm Bain & Co. in Shanghai.
The increased scrutiny has raised concerns that Beijing is moving to deepen the divide between China’s business environment and the international business community.
Earlier this year, state-owned firms were reportedly encouraged to stop working with the big four international accounting firms. In the past month some foreign subscribers said they had been cut off from critical Chinese sources of knowledge and data, including the country’s largest academic database, China National Knowledge Infrastructure, and widely used financial repository Wind.
A particularly concerning development has been the sweeping overhaul of China’s counterespionage law late last month, which broadly described espionage to include any “documents, data, materials or items related to national security and interests.”
The law, which did not define national security interests, already allowed for an exit ban to be imposed on anyone under investigation.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Friday said the revised spy law risked shaking investor confidence, noting it “casts a wide net” over materials considered relevant to national security.
“In the context of China’s new Counter Espionage Law … the additional scrutiny of firms providing essential business services dramatically increases the uncertainties and risks of doing business in the People’s Republic,” it said in a statement.
Analysts and observers have expressed concern that previously ordinary research activities could now fall under the law’s vague umbrella. The wide-reaching revision, in combination with the increased scrutiny on foreign firms, has undermined Beijing’s messaging that the country is open for business after three years of strict pandemic controls stifled growth.
“It’s very difficult for companies to do business if they cannot evaluate their counterparties, examine information and be aware of the performance of China’s economy on a detailed basis,” said Ross at the American Chamber of Commerce in China.
When asked about the raid on Bain’s offices last week, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said that she wasn’t aware of the incident but that Beijing was committed to fostering a world-class business environment. “China is a law-based country. All companies in China must operate in accordance with the law,” Mao said.
The Japanese government warned its nationals to be on alert not to violate the law, and Japanese media reported that since 2014, at least 17 Japanese nationals had been detained in China for alleged spying.
The raids and detentions have heightened unease among executives and investors about the risks of continuing to operate in the country. “There’s more than one factor that may dampen foreign investment and undermine this stated wider welcome to foreign business,” said Ross.
Lyric Li in Seoul contributed to this report.