Jeff Wasserstrom is a self-proclaimed China specialist who is seriously considering never returning to China – at least, he says, not while President Xi Jinping is in power.
The American professor, who for decades made multiple trips a year to China and was last there in 2018, hasn’t focused his career on Tibet or Taiwan – lightning-rod issues which attract Beijing’s ire at lightning-quick speed – but he has written about cultural diversity and student protests in mainland China, and appeared on panels with people he says the Communist Party is “clearly upset with.”
Three years ago, that made the California-based academic wonder if his visa application to China might be rejected.
Today, it makes him consider whether crossing the border risks his indefinite arbitrary detention. The chance of that outcome, Wasserstrom says, might be “pretty minimal,” but the consequences are so grave – those detained can be locked up for years without contact with their families or a trial date – he is not willing to gamble.
And he is not alone.
More than a dozen academics, NGO workers and media professionals CNN spoke to, who in pre-Covid times regularly traveled to China, said they were unwilling to do this once the pandemic restrictions lifted, over fears for their personal safety. Several in the international business community said they would significantly modify their behavior while outside China to avoid attracting the ire of authorities in the country, where they need to do business.
The dramatic detention of a handful of foreigners in recent years has instilled a deep fear in some people, especially those with politically adjacent occupations. As President Xi breeds a culture of nationalism and forges increasingly hostile relations with Western governments, some fear that if a diplomatic spat between their government and Beijing occurred while they were in China they could become a target.
Many cited the detention of two Canadians in China in December 2018 as a turning point in their thinking. Michael Kovrig, an NGO worker and former diplomat, and Michael Spavor, who organized trips to North Korea, including for NBA player Dennis Rodman, were detained just after Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Vancouver on charges filed in the United States. Their detentions have been characterized as a bargaining chip to help leverage Meng’s release, an accusation Beijing denies.
Last August, Chinese-Australian TV anchor Cheng Lei was also detained amid worsening ties between Beijing and Canberra. Cheng’s detention was all the more surprising given she worked for the state media channel, CGTN.
All three are facing charges of spying.
Gordon Matthews, a professor of anthropology living in Hong Kong, says some of his colleagues at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who have devoted their lives to China are exploring pursuing new lines of academic inquiry to avoid visiting the mainland.
William Nee, an American who works for NGO China Human Rights Defenders, falls into the category of foreigners unwilling to travel to China, and says he knows many others, with “a lower risk profile” than the two detained Canadians, who have made the same judgment.
“It’s not really a question only of, ‘What are the things I have been doing that may have contributed to my getting detained?’ It’s also a question of, ‘What is my nationality? What have the politicians from my country have been saying?’” says Nee.
“If they’re willing to arbitrarily detain someone who was a very moderate, thoughtful academic, or a think tank type of person,” he adds, “then it’s difficult to see how anyone can feel safe.”
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the “so-called increased risk in arbitrary detention of foreigners in China” was “completely inconsistent with the facts.”
“China has always protected the safety and legitimate rights and interests of foreigners in China in accordance with the law,” the ministry in a statement in response to CNN’s inquiry. “On the Internet and social media, many foreigners share their experiences of working and living in China, saying that China is one of the safest countries they have ever lived in, and it is safe even when walking alone at night.”
The statement added that, in fact, Meng Wanzhou’s experience in Canada was a “typical case of arbitrary detention, and we hope she can return to China as soon as possible.”
The level of risk
In June, a business advisory council to the US State Department issued a report titled “Hostage Diplomacy in China,” seen by CNN, which cited the two Canadians’ cases as a primary reason why firms should be more careful when sending employees to China.
Academics, former diplomats and think tanks across the world have similarly signed open letters expressing concern over what the two detentions mean for them. Last month, US President Joe Biden, commenting on the Canadians’ case, told reporters: “Human beings are not bartering chips … We’re going to work together until we get their safe return.”
Thomas Nunlist, a risk analyst at Hill & Associates, says he has seen an increase in demand from multinational companies seeking guidance on matters of detention risk mitigation, and response protocol, in China in recent years.
Nunlist says for the average business person, traveler or student the “risk of detention is low.” However, he adds that a number of factors increase the risk of being detained in China, including holding dual citizenship, having a government background or being politically connected, or involvement in “sensitive activity.”
Between 2009 and 2020, more than 50 cases involving foreigners detained in police custody or prevented from leaving China have appeared in media reports, according to Nunlist. Of those, 28 were involved in what his firm deemed to be “sensitive activity.” “Some activities, such as involvement with North Korea or work in human rights advocacy, were clearly sensitive; others, such as conducting geological or historical research, were less obviously politically sensitive,” he says.
Others cases included foreigners taking drugs in China, where dealing narcotics can still result in capital punishment, while a handful involved being approached and questioned. Three Canadians have been sentenced to death on narcotics charges since relations between Ottawa and Beijing soured, although China denies politics affect the sentences.
There is another form of detention in China that often doesn’t involve a jail, or even committing a crime. It comes in the form of an exit ban – legal under the Exit and Entry Administration Law adopted in 2012 for unsettled civil cases in China.
Sometimes security officials will visit people to inform them they are subject to exit bans; other times it is not evident until a person tries to leave the country. Usually, recipients can live in their own apartments and move around their community freely – China itself becomes a giant prison they cannot leave.
In recent years, the bans have increasingly been used on foreigners – including on US, Australian and Canadian citizens – who face no charges in China. A number of ethnically Chinese US citizens, in particular, have been banned from leaving China, essentially kept as “hostages” to lure their Chinese relatives living abroad to return to the country to settle business and legal disputes.
“American citizens are too often being detained as de facto hostages in business disputes or to coerce family members to return to China,” said James P. McGovern, a US Democratic congressman and chairman of the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China.
But they are not exclusively used on those of Chinese ethnicity.
Bill Birtles and Mike Smith, two Australian journalists working in China, fled the country last September after learning exit bans had been placed on them. They sought refuge in their country’s diplomatic missions in Beijing and Shanghai, while Canberra negotiated with Chinese officials to allow them to leave.
The standoff lasted five days, before the bans were lifted. The men were told they were “persons of interest in an investigation” into Cheng Lei, the Chinese-Australian anchor for state broadcaster CGTN detained earlier last year.
In February 2019, Richard O’Halloran became the first Irish citizen to be the subject of a Chinese exit ban, according to his legal team. The father-of-four had traveled to Shanghai to settle a business dispute involving fraud allegations against a shareholder in the aviation leasing firm he worked for.
Shareholder Min Jiedong was charged with defrauding Chinese investors of some $70 million.
But when O’Halloran got to the airport, he discovered he was banned from leaving China, and compelled to be a witness in Min’s criminal case. During that process, O’Halloran was required to visit an immigration office every few months to have his exit ban extended, without being told why he was being prevented from leaving or what specifically was needed from him – his lawyers said he had nothing in writing.
Min’s case concluded in March 2020, and he is now in prison with no chance of appeal.
O’Halloran’s exit ban was finally lifted in January. But to complete what Member of the European Parliament for Dublin, Barry Andrews, has called his “Kafkaesque nightmare,” when O’Halloran went to the airport, hoping to get home for his son’s 14th birthday, he was stopped again. He remains in China.
Unlike the US, Australia, the UK and Canada, Ireland has no obvious clash with the Chinese government. The Irish government’s official travel advice for China now warns an “individual, their family or an employer” can be subject to an exit ban if they are connected to a legal matter or business dispute.
The US State Department issued a travel advisory last December, saying China “arbitrarily enforces local laws, including by carrying out arbitrary and wrongful detentions and through the use of exit bans on US citizens” to, among other reasons, “gain bargaining leverage over foreign governments.”
Nunlist says exit bans are not uncommon in cases involving business disputes. “It is crucial that companies understand the circumstances when an exit ban may be applied, such as during a significant business dispute, as exposure can sometimes be avoided,” he says.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said O’Halloran was “obliged to cooperate with the Chinese judicial authorities in recovering the assets involved” in the case involving the company he represents.
“O’Halloran has freedom of movement during his stay in China, and all legal rights are fully protected in accordance with the law,” the statement added.
In 2020, China became the world’s largest recipient of foreign direct investment, with flows into the country rising 4% to $163 billion. With China reducing barriers to investment and being the only major global economy to grow last year, doing business there has become even more vital.
For many, rare retributions for geopolitical skirmishes, and the threat of exit bans when things go wrong, are not a serious deterrent.
One US-based analyst who regularly worked in China said she wasn’t concerned about getting into the country from a political standpoint. In fact, she said her community is itching to go for research and investing purposes, once the pandemic permits travel there again. “Fund flow is still positive and strong into China,” she said. “So if you’re investing, it’s typical to take quarterly trips.”
Now Biden is in office, she is hoping for a smoother experience for American citizens than during the volatile years under former President Donald Trump.
James Smith, a Canadian businessman who has operated a factory in the southern city of Guangzhou for decades, said he is not deterred from operating in China, but is always mindful of the unique risks involved in working there. He asked to use a pseudonym for this piece to avoid retributions in China for his comments.
“When I’m in China, I don’t go out. I don’t fraternize, I don’t go out to bars,” he says. “You know, there’s too much to lose. So my life in China is very small and I want to keep it that way. Because, you know, I’ve heard horror stories.
“I mean, it’s a pretty scary world. I just don’t want to even have any part of that.”
One ethnically Chinese financial executive, who does business in China and travels on his US passport, says that while most people he encounters in the business world still want to work on the mainland, they are increasingly modifying what they share on social media and discuss with friends while outside the country to protect their safety and business opportunities. He asked not to be named for security reasons.
In Hong Kong, where he is based, this has become a particular issue due to the national security law, which was imposed on the city by Beijing last June, and criminalizes secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign powers.
“A lot of people that I knew who were quite vocal before (on political issues) on social media, I don’t read anything from them anymore – the last couple of years especially, because the political climate changed,” the financial executive said.
He recalls one Buddhist colleague who had started contributing to a school in Tibet, a restive region of China with an exiled government agitating for its autonomy. He says his company took the colleague aside to ask her to refrain from donating, and to keep a low profile on Tibetan matters, to avoid causing the firm problems when she represented them in the mainland.
“It has a chilling effect,” he says. “But I need to go to China to work. I’m not really concerned about my personal safety. I mean, I’m not a very influential person, in terms of the political opinions.”
Those risk factors of who is influential and worth detaining might not always be obvious.
One Beijing-based business executive, for example, says he believed the risk of traveling to China to be just “non-zero,” but outlines certain caveats, which might not be immediately apparent to someone living in a Western democracy. He asked not to be named for security reasons.
“I know a business guy who used to travel to China quite frequently before the pandemic. And what I’ve noticed on his LinkedIn feed is that he’s been forwarding things from the Epoch Times,” he says, referring to the media outlet affiliated with the Falun Gong religious movement banned – and reviled – by China’s ruling Communist Party.
“So for now, he better not come. He forwards things from the Epoch Times and that’s radioactive.”
The situation can also change swiftly, as often illustrated during the Trump administration. Last summer, when US authorities arrested four Chinese nationals, claiming they had lied on their visa applications about their connections to the PLA, figures in Beijing say that raised the risk for any US national in China with previous ties to the US military.
“It would be fairly easy to find an equivalent person in China … just look on their LinkedIn profile. There’s lots of people that will fit that profile. So, yeah, that made people nervous,” the Beijing-based executive says.
The chance to understand China is passing
When Wasserstrom, the US-China specialist, went to graduate school in the early 1980s, it was normal for authors on China to not have recently traveled to the country, which for decades had been sealed to foreigners.
“There was a whole period when the major works in the field in English were produced by people who did their research in Taiwan, or interviewed refugees or emigres in Hong Kong,” Wasserstrom says. “Just as in some ways, Xi Jinping is a throwback to China being a place with a personality cult,” what is occurring now in the academic space “is a kind of throwback to another time,” he adds, as scholars feel less willing to travel there and are finding it harder to access sensitive sites and groups when they do make it in.
Lev Nachman, a PhD candidate at UC Irvine and visiting scholar at National Taiwan University, says undertaking research in China is now a “much more complicated goal” than it was five or six years ago.
“A lot of the new advice we are getting, as graduate students, is to do a project that does not require you to necessarily do fieldwork in China,” he says, because access to archives and interviewees is difficult. “And now we just have to imagine that the difficulty has been turned up to 10, along with a risk of personal safety.”
Last year, Trump issued an executive order to cancel within China and Hong Kong the Fulbright exchange program, which sends some of the brightest US minds around the world – a particularly striking move given the first Fulbright agreement with any nation was signed in Nanjing in eastern China in 1947 – before the Communist takeover of the mainland – to educate Chinese students in the US.
With fewer academics willing to travel to China, and those who do make it after the coronavirus pandemic encountering a more closed nation, the result could be fewer Western minds reporting on and studying China firsthand at a time when, arguably, the world has never had a greater need to understand the country.
Wasserstrom adds that perhaps the newest wrinkle in this China story is it is no longer possible to peer into the mainland from Hong Kong, where academic study and freedom of speech has also been targeted in the past year under the national security law. Recently, Baptist University in Hong Kong canceled a photography exhibition, which featured images of the local pro-democracy demonstrations, due to “security concerns. Books by democracy figures have been removed from public libraries, now deemed illegal under the security law.
“I used to assume that if I couldn’t go to the mainland, I would just go to Hong Kong more often,” says Wasserstrom. “And now I feel that actually Hong Kong isn’t safe, either.”
CNN’s Selina Wang also contributed to this report.