China Exit Bans: You Can Check Out Any Time You Want, But You Can’t Ever Leave

I personally have dealt with more than two dozen exit ban matters in China. Around half of these were clear, in that the person banned from leaving China was told very explicitly not to leave, and in each case they knew why. The others were quite unclear, and involved people in China who feared they had become subject to an exit ban and people outside China who feared that if they were to go to China, they would never get out.

This post provides an in-depth look at China exit bans – what leads to them, how to assess your risk of being subject to one, and key actions you should take to avoid or address them. With China increasingly using exit bans against foreigners amid geopolitical tensions, practical guidance is essential for companies and individuals doing business in China. Read on for real-world examples, risk analysis steps, protective measures and advice for responding in detention scenarios. Being prepared is crucial before travelling to or spending time in China.

1. What Leads to China Exit Bans?

The typical reasons for the Chinese government imposing an exit ban that prohibits a foreigner from leaving China is for allegedly committing a crime, allegedly owing money to a Chinese company, or being in some other sort of dispute with a Chinese company or individual.

It is important that when determining whether you have violated the laws of China, you are actually aware of Chinese laws, and not just basing your determination on the laws of a country like the United States, Japan, or Denmark. You should instead think of countries like China, Iran, and North Korea, and it would also be instructive for you to read Chinese Government Raids and Shuts Down a Well-Known American Business. This is a REALLY BIG Deal. The focus of this post is on Chinese government raids and shutdowns, but the core reasons for Chinese government raids and shutdowns is similar to the core reasons for exit bans.

Last year, professors Chris Carr and Jack Wroldsen wrote a guest post for us, entitled Exit Ban Risk When Doing Business in China – Hold ‘Em, Fold ‘Em or Return? That post began by discussing the increased trepidation people have about being detained in China, in part due to the newly passed Hong Kong National Security Law and the tribulations of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. This fear of being detained in China due to exit bans is definitely still prevalent and I know this because I have been retained to do more “travel to China risk assessments in the last three months than in the last ten years. As the Wall Street Journal reported in Dozens of Americans Are Barred from Leaving China, Adding to Tensions:”

Legal experts say virtually any party to a civil dispute in China involving a foreign national can ask local police to add their opponent’s name to a national database of exit bans that police check at every airport, railway station and other border crossing. . . . U.S. authorities say they don’t know how many Americans face exit bans in China, as targets of such bans often fear that involving diplomats could be viewed as provocative and deepen their predicament.

The Carr/Wroldsen article then describes how foreigners in China usually learn they are subject to an exit ban at the airport when the Chinese authorities prevent them from boarding an international flight or crossing the border but otherwise leave the person free to travel within China. They noted that exit bans are distinct from a debt or commercial hostage situation (Carr & Harris, 2021) in which the foreigner’s freedom of movement within China is restricted.

The post then discusses the professors’ recent Thunderbird International Business Review article, Exit Bans When Doing Business in China, that studied the frequency of China exit bans by using data obtained from the United States, Germany, Netherlands, United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada, along cases “from English and Mandarin media.” Their study looked only at exit bans that arose from civil (as opposed to criminal) business disputes “between a foreign businessperson and his or her local Chinese counterpart, where the foreigner was prevented from leaving China.” It did not cover exit ban cases stemming from political motivations or criminal charges.

Per their study, there have been at least 128 China exit ban cases and about a third of those were driven by business disputes. The professors wrote that “it is likely many more of the 128 cases were caused by business disputes, but because much of the data we received from government agencies was provided in aggregate form, we were unable to verify the driving force behind such cases  and it mostly involved senior-level executives, though it is not unheard of for juniors at companies to be banned if they are the only company personnel in China.”

The professors also recorded responses to an “admittedly unscientific poll on LinkedIn” regarding the likelihood of foreigners with business ties travelling to China. Per this poll, just under half said they likely would not be willing to go to China. They also received 34 private responses to their poll, and more than 60% of those people were not likely to go to China:

More interesting were the 34 private responses received, where people overall expressed less willingness to return to China than the public responders in (paraphrased) comments like, “I’m concerned with being canceled regardless of how I respond publicly, but here is my private vote.” The 34 private responses were as follows:

Definitely: 5 (15%)

Probably: 8 (24%)

Probably not: 11 (32%)

Definitely not: 10 (29%)

Although these collective responses are not a huge sample size, they are nevertheless indicative of the seemingly growing reticence of some businesspeople to return to China.

See also Westerners are increasingly scared of traveling to China as threat of detention rises.

To quote from professors Carr and Wroldsen’s blog post, “most exit ban cases probably go unreported because the targets or victims don’t wish to make their situation with Chinese authorities or their local business partner even worse, so our early research results likely only highlight the tip of the exit ban iceberg.”

2. How to Determine if you are Subject to a China Exit Ban

In the last ten years, I have been called or emailed close to 100 times by people wanting to retain our law firm to determine whether they are subject to a China exit ban. These communications were probably evenly split between those who were in China and concerned about not being able to get out, and those who were concerned about going to China and not being allowed in (which is technically not an exit ban), or being allowed into China and then not being allowed to leave. Many of these people seemed to believe that my law firm could — with one well-placed phone call — determine whether they were subject to a China exit ban.

For those in China, we would give advice that might range from how to resolve the business dispute that might be causing them to be banned from leaving China, and then try to leave. We often have a number of additional suggestions, which I am not going to  reveal here.

For those outside China, we would most of the time say they were at risk of being banned from leaving China were they to go there and they should not go to China because of these risks. We would suggest having their meeting in Hong Kong (we no longer suggest that, for obvious reasons) or some country other than China.

Of those we told not to go to China, I am guessing 3-4 of those people went and were able to leave without a problem. In one instance — where we emphatically told this company that none of its personnel should go to China, someone from this company insisted on going to China anyway and ended up being held hostage. This person was held hostage for five days in a high-end U.S. hotel room in Qingdao and had to be led out of that room and driven to Beijing by what was essentially a swat team we organized to get her out. She was able to fly out of China because she was not subject to an exit ban. I write about this because it makes for a great story and because it highlights how exit bans and hostage taking can overlap.

3. How to Avoid China Exit Bans

The key to avoiding China exit bans is to determine whether you should be going to China before you go to China. The key to that determination is knowing your risks.

  • Do not commit a crime in China.
  • Do not offend anyone in China, especially anyone in the Chinese government.
  • if you think you might have offended the Chinese government (including with anything you said online from the comfort of a foreign country), do not go to China.
  • Do not have any disputes with anyone in China, and if you do have such a dispute, do not go to China, or leave China immediately.
  • If you are overdue on payment to anyone in China, do not go to China, or leave China immediately.

To quote Professors Carr and Wroldsen, “the time for an exit ban strategy is before you are stopped at the border!”

In How to Assess Your Personal China Risks, I set out some factors relevant to assessing China risks and I go through those again below, but with a caveat. The below is not all-inclusive and it is not customized to any company or person’s specific situation. It is also based on what was going on three months ago (when that post was written) and not today. Nonetheless, the below factors are a good think piece for determining your risks, and whether you or your company should be hiring someone for a more comprehensive and customized risk analysis.

4. Factors That Impact Personal China Risks

a. What’s Been Said or Done

You should assume the CCP knows pretty much everything you’ve ever said about China publicly or quasi-publicly (and even some things said privately), specifically including anything said at a college or university, anything said before a China-related NGO, and anything said to one of your Chinese employees. This includes any public government testimony, and it also likely includes you going into a US or EU government office that seeks to contain China. If someone in your company has said something bad about China, everyone in your company is at higher risk. If someone important in your company is known for defending China, everyone in that company is likely at lower risk. Anyone who has worked for anti-China media, or an anti-China think tank, university, political party, or politician is likely at greater risk.

b. Nationality/Race/Ethnicity/Religion

Nationality influences personal risk. China has a history of mistreating Africans and Filipinos, including arrests for no real reason. People from small countries that China does not like, such as Lithuania, are at greater risk. People from large countries that China does not like, such as the United States and Japan are at greater risk. People from countries with which China has an “unlimited friendship,” i.e., Russia, are at low risk.

Ethnicity influences risk. Immediately upon hearing of Russia’s arrest of Evan Gershkovich for spying, I posited he was probably an ethnic Russian, and I was right. See Evan Gershkovich Loved Russia, the Country That Turned on Him, which mentions his “parents fled the Soviet Union.” Russia generally views Russians who have left Russia with varying levels of disdain. So does China. Ethnic Chinese from Canada, the United States, Australia, Chile, France, or wherever, are at greater risk of being arrested or held hostage in China than a Caucasian from those same countries.

Race is a risk factor, and from what I have seen, Black people (from anywhere) are at greater risk in China. I base this on having seen/heard of a  disproportionate number of Black people being arrested in China. Black Americans especially seem at greater risk of being arrested in China for alleged driver disputes, for being in a bar when a fight breaks out, and for cannabis use. I see this as a combination of racism by Chinese citizens who believe they can easily get Chinese police to make these arrests and the willingness of Chinese police to do so. Just as the Chinese government believes there will be less international fallout from arresting an ethnic Chinese person, they also seem to believe there will be less international fallout from arresting a Black person. Frankly (and sadly) they may be right.

Religion also impacts China risks. People known to be religious and/or involved with a religion the Chinese government particularly dislikes, are at greater risk. If you attend religious services in China, you are at greater risk.

Military/Government Experience. In 1996, a client-friend of mine was arrested for no reason in Russia. Upon his arrest, someone (for the life of me, I cannot remember whether it was a mutual friend, someone from his family, or someone from the U.S. Government) called to tell me not to mention that this person had learned Russian at the Monterrey Institute or had served in the U.S. military. I stayed silent, but after Russia released my friend, he told me that his Russian interrogators knew everything about him, and they asked him questions regarding all the above to determine whether he would be telling them the truth or not.

Countries like Russia and China love arresting people with government and/or military backgrounds because those backgrounds bolster their claims that the person is a spy and up to no good. Anyone who has served in the military or worked for pretty much any government in any country the CCP dislikes is at greater risk.

Unfriendly Company Experience. Anyone who has worked for anti-China media, or an anti-China think tank, university, political party, or politician is at greater risk. If your existing employer has high-level personnel the CCP deems unfriendly to China, you are at greater risk. If your employer company is not generating much in the way of jobs or taxes for China, you may be at greater risk. If your employer company is engaged in a business/industry the Chinese government does not like, you are at greater risk. If your employer company does not pay its China taxes or mistreats its Chinese employees or engages in any illegal behavior (no matter how small) and you are high up in the company, you are at greater risk.

Geography and Geopolitics. People sometimes get arrested in China so the CCP can send an overt message to a foreign country or to China’s own citizens. These arrests are usually in retaliation for something done by a foreign country.

Russia’s recent arrest of Gershkovich (see above) is widely believed to have been to retaliate for the United States arresting a Russian on espionage charges and/or for the United States helping Ukraine. Most everyone believes the “two Michaels” from Canada, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, were arrested to retaliate against Canada for arresting Huawei’s Meng Wanzhou. China’s recent Mintz Group arrests are believed to have been to retaliate against the United States for blocking semiconductor shipments to China and/or for the United States embarrassing China regarding its spy balloon and/or for publicly pressuring China not to arm Russia in its war against Ukraine. China’s recent arrest of a Japanese businessperson (who, near as I can tell, has yet to be named) is believed to be in retaliation for Japan joining with the United States and the EU to block semiconductors from reaching China.

As per Nikkei Asia, China has a long history of arresting Japanese businesspeople as a retaliatory measure against Japan:

China has continued to crack down on foreign nationals in the name of national security. Since 2015, at least 17 Japanese citizens have been detained for allegedly engaging in espionage. These individuals range from geological researchers to trading house employees to academics.

The biggest issue is the lack of clarity on where China’s definition of “national security” begins. This opacity makes it impossible for foreign companies to adequately prepare and train their employees for assignments or business trips to China.

If companies are constantly afraid that their employees could be detained at any time, they will have little option but to refrain from sending staff to China. This could eventually lead to less trade and investment between the neighbors. This hurts Beijing, too, by disrupting its plans for steady economic growth.

In 2010, shortly after a Chinese fishing boat captain was arrested in Japan over the collision between his trawler and two Japan Coast Guard vessels, four employees of Japanese construction company Fujita were suddenly detained in China’s Hebei province. Many saw this as a retaliatory move by Beijing. China has taken similar actions with citizens of other countries.

Despite the relatively large number of foreigners arrested or held hostage by China every year (17 people arrested from just Japan for espionage in the last 8 years!), the overall risks for any given foreigner in China is very low, and the above is not meant to imply otherwise. It is meant to help you quantify your risks.

So go ahead and describe China as one giant casino, full of risks. And go ahead and call its legal system rigged, because in many cases it is. But do not let anything be an excuse for you not doing whatever you can to reduce your own China risks or to protect your employees there.

5. What to do if you are Banned from Leaving China

1. Keep calm. Try to remain calm and do your best to cooperate with Chinese government officials. Arguing often makes matters worse.

2. Try not to sign anything. Many years ago, I landed in Qingdao with an expired visa. I was taken to a small room where around five Chinese government officials tried to pressure me into signing a long Chinese language document that I did not fully understand. I was fine with being put on an airplane heading to Seoul, but I did not want to sign the document, and it soon became clear that if I did not sign it, that I would spend a long time in that small, smelly room, so I eventually relented and signed it, but wrote that I was signing it without fully understanding what I was signing and I demanded I be given a copy of the signed version.  The Chinese government loves giving foreigners Chinese language documents and requiring that you sign them. If at all possible, do not sign something you do not understand. At a minimum, ask for time to review it and to consult with legal counsel, and if you feel that signing is your best choice, at least make clear that you do not fully understand what you are signing and that you are signing it under duress. And then get a copy of whatever you signed, so you or someone else can interpret it later. Will this help? Who knows, but it is more likely to help than hurt.

3. Say as little as possible. Report the basics sought by the Chinese government. Thinkg like the purpose of your visit, your employer, and your home country contact info. Do not voluntarily provide excessive details. Anything you say can and will be used against you.

4. You are being watched and recorded. Assume you are being monitored and recorded, 24/7, no matter where you are. Being circumspect at all times with what you say and do.

5. Ask to speak with your embassy/consulate. Keep asking for the ability to speak with your country’s embassy/consular staff. China sometimes will allow this, and sometimes not, but it is usually good to ask. I was once picked up by the Vladivostok police for no reason whatsoever (short of wanting me to pay a bribe) and in my meager Russian I kept demanding to be able to talk to my lawyer (I had a friend who was a lawyer there) and to speak with the U.S. consul. I think this led the police to finally release me.

6. Demand the chance to call a lawyer. Ask repeatedly to be able to speak with a Chinese criminal lawyer. Sometimes this is granted, other times not. There are plenty of excellent criminal lawyers in China.

7. Do not flee China. In the old days, we would direct people to drive to Vietnam in the trunk of a car, and it worked. Today, China is a high tech police state and your chances of getting caught leaving China are considerably greater, and getting caught will generate a new crime and will likely only make it easier for Chinese government to justify whatever it does to you.

What are your thoughts?

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