Two young Americans, Victor and Cynthia Liu, are “trapped” in China, increasingly desperate and despondent because Chinese authorities have blocked them from leaving for more than a year.
“They are trapped. They are alone. They are desperate to come home,” David Pressman, the siblings’ New York-based attorney, told USA TODAY. “They are literally breaking down.”
The Lius are subject to a so-called “exit ban,” and they’re not they only ones.
Another American citizen, Huang Wan, says Chinese officials are using a “fake” legal case to prevent her from returning to the United States. An Australian resident, Yuan Xiaoliang, has been barred from leaving China for more than eight months, and her husband, an Australian citizen, has been arrested on suspicion of spying, according to Australia’s foreign minister.
The State Department has warned Americans about China’s growing use of exit bans – stating in a Jan. 3 travel advisory that Chinese authorities have sometimes used exit bans to keep Americans in China for years.
“China uses exit bans coercively,” the State Department cautioned, “to compel U.S. citizens to participate in Chinese government investigations, to lure individuals back to China from abroad, and to aid Chinese authorities in resolving civil disputes in favor of Chinese parties.”
Thomas Kellogg, executive director of the Center for Asian Law at Georgetown University Law Center, said China has long used exit bans to stop its own citizens from leaving the country, particularly human-rights activists or other dissidents. But authorities are increasingly using the tactic to harass Americans and other foreign nationals, particularly those of Chinese descent, he said.
“We don’t have firm numbers in terms of exactly how many people, on either the Chinese side or the international side, have been subjected to exit bans … but we know that the number is quite large,” Kellogg said. Thousands of Chinese citizens have been subject to exit bans in recent years, he said, along with an unknown number of foreigners.
Kellogg and other experts say the bitter U.S.-China trade war has exacerbated the trend, along with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s efforts to consolidate power and stifle dissent. Xi has purged opponents often using the pretext of “corruption,” overseen a massive repression campaign against Muslims, and nixed term limits so he can hold onto power indefinitely.
“It’s a very ominous way of governing,” said Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based foreign policy think tank. The use of exit bans, he said, “is one element of it.”
A spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington did not respond to emailed questions.
A State Department official said the agency could not disclose the number of Americans currently subject to exit bans. But this official, who was not authorized to speak on the record, noted that Chinese authorities have “broad authority” to prevent U.S. citizens from leaving China.
“U.S. officials, including the Secretary of State, regularly raise the issue of exit bans with the Chinese government and will continue to do so until we see a transparent and fair process,” the State Department official said.
For the Liu siblings, the process has been anything but fair.
They’re being used “as a crude form of human bait” to lure their estranged father, Liu Changming, back to China, said Pressman, the Lius’ attorney, who has served as a deputy U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and is now an attorney with the firm Boies Schiller Flexner.
The Chinese government has accused Liu, a former Bank of Communications official, of being involved in a $1.4 billion fraud scheme. Liu fled China in 2007, and he is no longer in touch with his family.
“This man abandoned my family many years ago,” Cynthia Liu said in an emotional video she recorded in May 2019, which aired on CBS News. “We are not in touch with him, nor do we have any way of contacting him.”
Victor and Cynthia Liu traveled to China in June 2018 with their mother, Sandra Han, to visit an elderly relative. After their trip, Victor Liu was planning to start his sophomore year at Georgetown University, and Cynthia was set to return to work at a consulting firm in New York City.
But those plans were derailed when Han was detained, and her children were barred from returning to the U.S. Victor and Cynthia are able to move around within China, they cannot leave the country, Pressman said.
Kellogg said Huang Wan’s case is similar.
“She hasn’t been accused of any crime. She seems to have been subject to an exit ban merely because of her association with political figures who have been disgraced and purged,” he said.
The disgraced figures in this instance are Huang’s husband and her father-in-law, who were charged and convicted in corruption cases. Her father-in-law, Zhou Yongkang, was a senior member of China’s ruling community party but came under investigation after Xi Jinping came to power and has since been sentenced to life in prison, according to an account in China Change, a U.S.-based group that provides information on human rights in China.
Huang says she was also detained and held for several years, starting in December 2013, and then placed on probation. She was supposed to be free this summer but then came the exit ban.
“On June 6, Ms. Huang, an American citizen since 1998, completed her probation and was finally free,” according to the account in China Change, which relies on messages from Huang’s Twitter feed and transcripts of conversations she has had with her lawyer.
“But just days before her long-awaited freedom, a civil case involving a lease dispute was brought against her which she described to her lawyer Chen Jiangang as ‘fictitious’ and designed to prevent her from leaving China,” the China Change account states.
Feng Chongyi, an associate professor of China Studies at the University of Technology in Australia, says China’s security forces have used exit bans “more and more frequently because this punishment can apply to a very large number of people with little administrative costs.”
He is friends with the Australian couple, Yuan Xiaoliang and her husband, Yang Hengjun, who are currently being detained in China. And he himself was detained in the country in 2017.
“I was extremely lucky to receive overwhelming international media campaign and immediate high level intervention from governments of Australia and the US,” Feng said in an email to USA TODAY.
He said Yang, a writer who has been critical of the Chinese government, has been tortured and initially was “sealed off from the outside world” without access to legal counsel or visits by relatives. Now, he is being held in southern Beijing with two cellmates, and he has limited access to Chinese TV and newspapers.
His wife and daughter are allowed to travel between Shanghai and Beijing, where her daughter is attending a school, he said, but they can’t go home to Australia.
“Better not to contact her as she is banned for interviews,” he said.