Former Chinese Bookseller’s Wife Held Under “Exit Ban”

The wife of a prominent former Chinese bookseller is being prevented from leaving China until her husband returns to the country to answer questions about his alleged political writings. Yu Miao ran Shanghai’s famed liberal Jifeng Bookstore until authorities forced it to close in 2018. He emigrated to the United States with his wife and three children, and now lives in Orlando, Florida. His wife, Xie Fang, returned to China in early 2022 to take care of her ailing mother and has since allegedly been barred from returning to the United States under an “exit ban” until Yu returns to Shanghai for police questioning about alleged pseudonymous writings critical of Xi Jinping. Yu denies any connection to the writings. At The Wall Street Journal, James T. Areddy interviewed Yu Miao about the exit ban preventing his wife from leaving China:

In August, as his wife was finishing a trip back to Shanghai, local authorities told her they want Mr. Yu to return to China for questions about his U.S. online activity, and she can’t leave the country until he does, the family says.

[…] Chinese authorities have told Ms. Xie they suspect her husband is the author of three articles critical of China’s governance written under an obvious pen name and published online in the U.S., according to the family. 

Mr. Yu says he didn’t write the commentaries, one of which detailed similarities between China’s leader, Mr. Xi, and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Yang Zili, a senior editor at the Washington-based, pro-democracy news service that published them in 2022, also says Mr. Yu wasn’t the author.

[…] The Communist Party vision promoted by China’s leader, Mr. Xi, left little room for the kind of debate Mr. Yu encouraged, and he says Jifeng faced a cascade of fines from regulatory agencies that accused it of selling illegal Buddhist texts, doing false advertising and violating fire codes. A list of events canceled by authorities and later published by Mr. Yu included lectures on constitutionalism and feminism. [Source]

Frustrated and angry at months of fruitless back-channel negotiations to secure Xie’s release, Yu published a transcript of a letter his wife had written to Shanghai authorities asking to be released: “She gave that letter to the policeman to express her attitude and stance and ask their permission to let her go. But after the letter was submitted, for two weeks, there was no positive feedback [….] So I felt hopeless and angry. So I decided to publish the letter.” Xie Fang confirmed with The Associated Press that she was the author of the letter, but declined to comment further. A portion of the letter that Yu Miao later published to a public WeChat account is translated below—censors erased it from the Chinese internet within hours:

On January 12 of last year, I returned to Shanghai from the United States to take care of my ailing mother. I was locked down at home due to the pandemic, but after the end of the lockdown I booked a return flight to the United States on August 1 in order to make the start of my twin daughters’ senior year of high school, my son’s graduate studies, and my husband’s university studies. However, I was stopped at Pudong Airport’s border control and instructed that I had violated some clause of the Exit and Entry Administration Law, causing harm to national security or something like that. Afterwards, Shanghai’s Public Security police repeatedly invited me to “chats” during which they inquired whether my husband Yu Miao had published or uploaded any essays under a pseudonym in the U.S. during the first half of 2022. I’d never heard anything of the sort before they mentioned it. Yet I have continued to proactively cooperate during these “chats,” passing along messages to my husband in accordance with the Public Security Bureau’s demands. I have also immediately forwarded his responses to the Shanghai PSB. He completely denies all the allegations they have made against him.

I am neither aware of nor involved in my husband’s activities. During his many years of managing Shanghai’s Jifeng Bookstore (until it was forcibly closed), I never asked about or participated in any of the bookstore’s events. I have always respected my husband’s independence and given him the greatest freedom. He is a staunch patriot and I trust him!

You have already stated clearly: I am innocent, and as soon as my husband returns to China to submit to investigation, my freedom to leave the country will be restored. Yet my husband is the sole guardian of our two underage daughters living abroad: how can he be expected to just drop everything and leave? If he abandons them to return to China, and both of us are placed under restrictions, doesn’t it stand to reason that our family will collapse? Civilized modern society rejects collective punishment and hostage-taking. I would never wish this fate on any family. If these practices are revived, nobody will be able to escape them. [Chinese]

Xie Fang’s case is but the latest example of the Chinese state placing exit bans on the relatives of individuals living abroad who it seeks to investigate. In one particularly egregious case, Victor and Cynthia Liu, two American siblings who traveled to China in 2018 to visit their ailing grandfather, were hit with an exit ban because their father, a former executive at a Chinese bank, was wanted by Chinese authorities in connection with a fraud case. They were eventually allowed to leave in 2021. China’s increasing use of exit bans is widely viewed as a violation of international law. Writing for The Brookings Institution’s Lawfare blog, Thomas Kellogg, the executive director of the Center for Asian Law at Georgetown University Law Center, analyzed the Liu siblings’ case:

In terms of their core rights, then, Victor and Cynthia Liu have both the ICCPR and the UDHR on their side. And yet, if a state can make use of exit bans in order to preserve public order, then couldn’t the ban against Victor and Cynthia Liu be justified on the basis of the ongoing criminal investigation against their father? States regularly confiscate the passports of individuals accused of committing a crime, for example. Couldn’t such a practice be extended to family members of the accused as well?

Not if, as in this case, the individuals involved have no material connection to the alleged crime itself. Both Victor and Cynthia Liu were young children when [their father] Liu Changming was working in China’s banking sector, and have made clear that they have no knowledge of their father’s activities or current whereabouts. Though Chinese authorities have at times intimated that Victor and Cynthia are themselves under investigation, they have yet to produce any credible evidence against them, more than seven months after they entered China.

In its General Comment on Article 12, the U.N. Human Rights Committee states that any restrictions on an individual’s Article 12 rights must be both necessary and proportional to achieve the state’s goals, and also that such restrictions must be based on “clear legal grounds.” Taking their cue from the Human Rights Committee, the international bodies and regional tribunals that have expounded on the right to leave have tended to define permissible restrictions on the right very narrowly. In cases involving criminal investigations, international and regional bodies have tended to focus on restrictions that could be placed on individuals themselves accused of a crime. This author was unable to identify any case in which an indefinite travel ban placed on an accused’s family members was upheld by any international body or tribunal. Given this context, it is unlikely that the severe restrictions on Victor and Cynthia Liu’s Article 12 rights would be deemed either necessary or proportional under international law. [Source]

Chinese officials have defended the use of exit bans as an effective prosecutorial tool. In one state-television documentary, prosecutors hailed the use of exit bans on the family members of one Canadian citizen as part of a campaign to “control his relatives and shake his emotional support.” There are currently dozens of American citizens in China subject to exit bans. The longest-running case among businesspeople is believed to be that of Henry Cai, an American citizen who has been prevented from leaving China since 2017. 


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