The U.S. has cornered China over many issues. But there is one that is less spoken of, the exit ban.

The Wall Street Journal on November 13 reported the story of Californian Henry Cai, a businessman trapped in China since 2017. He has been entangled in a financial dispute and is now pressured to pay a debt he does not owe.

He has never been charged with any crime, yet, he was slammed with five consecutive exit bans. 

As legal experts tell the Journal, foreign individuals can be subjected to an exit ban if they get into a civil dispute in China. The measure can be applied simply if the other side of the party files a request to local law enforcement. The foreigner’s name would then be added to a national database. 

Most often, Americans only discover that they have been banned when they attempt to leave China. How long the block remains in effect is usually unknown. In the case of Cai, he was stopped short at the airport. 

According to the Journal, the U.S. cannot specify how many Americans have been affected by China’s exit ban. There is a fear that engaging diplomats could be seen as provocative and deepen their situation.

John Kamm, chairman of the Dui Hua Foundation, believes about 30 Americans are unable to leave the country because of exit bans. Additionally, there could be around 200 who may have already been imprisoned over grounds that Dui Hua sees as dubious. The foundation says China’s exit ban may have a legal foundation, but its implementation rules are ambiguous.

Henry Cai invested in a Beijing-based tech firm. The business took out a loan in 2015 to overcome what was considered a short-term hurdle. It didn’t work out as expected, and Cai was sought after to resolve the company’s debt. Holding nearly an 8% stake in the firm, Cai had verbally agreed to use his shares as a guarantee of repayment until longer-term bank credit lines came into effect.

The court document reads that Cai is forbidden from leaving China “for involvement in a pending civil case.”

Washington has long accused Beijing of hostage diplomacy, and the Chinese government also struck back with similar accusations.

However, legal experts tell the Journal that in the U.S., if a foreign national is asked to hand over their passports because of their involvement in criminal trials, they can apply for an appeal. A party in a U.S. civil dispute is rarely prohibited from traveling.
The U.S. State Department issued a public warning about China’s exit ban as early as January 2019. The statement, still in effect now, acknowledges a growing risk that Americans traveling to China could not be allowed to leave. It further cautions that Americans of Chinese ancestry might face increased scrutiny or retaliation.

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