Chinese police have prevented a woman from returning to her home in Florida in an effort to compel her husband to return to China, she wrote in a letter he made public.
The case appears to be the latest example of Chinese authorities placing an “exit ban” on a person’s relatives to pressure them to return.
In an appeal to authorities, Fang Xie, 51, wrote that the police have told her that she is “innocent” but that she cannot leave until her husband, a former bookseller who left China after his store was shut down for political reasons, gives himself up.
She was barred from boarding a plane in Shanghai last August, her husband Miao Yu said, and hasn’t been able to leave China since.
Exit bans, which critics have likened to hostage-taking, have affected both Chinese citizens and foreigners. The U.S. government includes exit bans as a risk in its travel advisory for people going to China.
Yu declined to provide contact information for his wife, citing concerns about her safety. He did, however, arrange for an Associated Press journalist to join a call between them in which she confirmed that she wrote the letter but declined to comment further.
The Shanghai Public Security Bureau did not immediately respond to faxed questions Monday and a Foreign Ministry spokesperson said she was not aware of the case.
But Chinese prosecutors have previously described the practice of using exit bans on family members to pressure wanted people to return. Prosecutors, in notes about the case of a former Chinese businessman who was accused of stealing $6 million and had moved to Canada, wrote that they set up a special task force to “vigorously squeeze his survival” and placed exit bans on his son, daughter-in-law, and ex-wife as part of a campaign to “control his relatives and shake his emotional support.”
Many countries can bar people accused of crimes or needed as witnesses to legal proceedings from leaving. But scholars say China’s use of travel bans exceeds these international norms.
Yu ran one of Shanghai’s best-known independent bookstores until 2018, when local authorities prevented his Jifeng Bookstore from renewing its lease, effectively pushing it out of business. At that time, Yu said, a representative of the public security bureau told him his shop had hosted “too many sensitive scholars” and “sensitive talks.”
The couple moved to the United States in 2019, when Yu began a master’s degree in political science, and Xie came as the spouse of a student visa holder. They settled in Florida to accompany their children who go to school there. Yu is now studying journalism in Orlando and said he has not remained active in politics since going overseas.
Xie returned to Shanghai to care for her ailing mother in 2022, and Shanghai police told her about the ban two days before she planned to return home in August. Xie tried to leave anyway, but airport border officials stopped her from leaving, saying she was “suspected of endangering national security,” he said.
But police told her a different story, she wrote in an appeal to authorities that Yu published on social media about two weeks ago.
“You clearly told me that I am innocent,” she wrote. “Once my husband returns to China for an investigation then this can be exchanged for my freedom to leave.”
Yu, who had been planning a trip to China to visit relatives and friends after his wife’s return, canceled his own plans.
The couple believes that the issue is three pseudonymous articles, which the police accuse Yu of publishing from the United States, about Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and those involved in China’s 1989 pro-democracy protest movement.
Yu said he is not the author of the articles, but the police told Xie that they traced them to an IP address associated with Yu.
Yu said his wife can live normally inside China and spends most of her time at her Shanghai home.
The couple speak daily, using the Chinese messaging service WeChat. But separation has been hard on them.
In her letter, Xie writes that she worries about her daughters, who are applying for university this year. “When adolescents lose their mother’s love, it will lead to lifelong regrets.”
Yu said he feels guilty that his work affected his wife, who did not work at the Jifeng Bookstore. It feels like having an “open wound,” Yu said in a video interview from their home in Florida. “I don’t know when I will be able to hug my wife and when I will be able to go back to my hometown safely and freely.”
Over the past six months, Yu said, he thought about going back to China in exchange for his wife’s freedom. He did not go ahead out of fear that his children would be left alone if the authorities banned both of them from leaving. Their twin daughters turned 18 years old this month, he added. The couple also have a 22-year-old son.
Yu published his wife’s letter on WeChat without telling her in advance, he said. It disappeared several hours after he first posted on WeChat but attracted attention from Chinese media outlets. A similar post on his Twitter account drew nearly 170,000 views.
The next day, local police told Xie that her husband’s move would make it more difficult to resolve the situation, he said.
Feng Chongyi, a professor of China Studies at the University of Technology in Sydney who was prevented from leaving China in 2017, said Chinese authorities regularly make such threats, but argued that publicity through media campaigns played a key role allowing him and others to leave after exit bans.
Yu said he decided to speak to the media because he hoped to gain the U.S. government’s attention ahead of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s early February trip to China. “It’s a very small hope. But now, I don’t have any other good hopes here,” he said.