The Rise of Exit Bans in China: A Tool for Political Control

A recent report from the human rights group Safeguard Defenders found 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. Evidence suggests that the number of politically targeted exit bans has grown in the past five years.

According to the report, Beijing has added to the number of laws regarding exit bans since 2018, expanding the ambiguity surrounding activities that could run afoul of the rules. The government has been using a web of vague laws to justify the bans, which are often politically motivated. The report states, “China has continued to introduce new laws and regulations on exit bans, further complicating and confusing the legal landscape.”

China’s use of exit bans has been on the rise since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, with the Chinese government using them to stop people from leaving the country. This has led to growing concerns among international businesses and human rights groups.

While exact statistics on exit bans are not available in China’s opaque bureaucracy, the report found a number of indicators showing that their use had risen significantly. For example, the number of times exit bans were mentioned in the Supreme People’s Court’s official database rose eightfold between 2016 and 2020. This dramatic jump likely mirrors a similar trend in exit bans recorded on the database (mostly civil disputes), the report said. Estimates are that “tens of thousands” of Chinese citizens are banned from leaving at any one time.

The increased use of exit bans and detentions of foreign business executives, or employees of their companies, has heightened concerns among the international business community. Lester Ross, a Beijing-based lawyer and chair of the policy committee at the American Chamber of Commerce in China, said, “Companies really have to swallow hard before allowing the risk to their own employees of being detained.”

The government’s actions have led to growing concerns about the environment for foreign businesses in China. 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. The increased scrutiny has raised concerns that Beijing is moving to deepen the divide between China’s business environment and the international business community.

The sweeping overhaul of China’s counterespionage law in late March has also caused concern. The law broadly describes 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 revised spy law risks shaking investor confidence, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which said that the law “casts a wide net” over materials considered relevant to national security. 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.

The situation has become so concerning that the Japanese government has warned its nationals to be on alert not to violate the law. The use of exit bans, which are often arbitrary and can be imposed without notice, violates international human rights law, and is a form of repression that undermines the rule of law. Human rights groups are calling on the international community to pressure China to stop using exit bans as a tool of repression.