China slaps exit ban on wife of shuttered Shanghai political bookstore owner

She says authorities are holding her hostage to force her husband to return and face investigation.
By Gao Feng and Kai Di for RFA Mandarin
2023.01.23
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China slaps exit ban on wife of shuttered Shanghai political bookstore owner After the Jifeng Bookstore [shown] in Shanghai was shut down in 2018, Yu Miao, his wife, Xie Fang, and their children came to the United States.
Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Authorities in China have prevented the wife of an exiled political bookstore owner from leaving the country to rejoin her husband and their three children in the United States, Radio Free Asia has learned.

Xie Fang, wife of former Jifeng Bookstore founder Yu Miao said in a statement posted to social media, dated January 2023, that she returned to Shanghai from the United States on Jan. 12, 2022, to take care of her sick mother.

"After the lifting of the zero-COVID policy, I was scheduled to return to the United States ... so that I could catch up with the start of my twin daughters’ senior year of high school, my son’s graduate school, and my husband’s college start,” she wrote.

"But I was stopped by border inspection guards at (Shanghai’s) Pudong Airport, who said I had ... endangered national security or some such thing," Xie wrote in a statement circulating on various social media platforms and reposted by the U.S.-based China Digital Times.

The case highlights how Chinese authorities have tried to use exit bans to compel people to cooperate with official investigations. 

In fact, Xie’s travel ban came as the U.S. State Department updated its China travel advisory to warn of this exact thing. It said American citizens need to "be more cautious" about going there and that Chinese authorities can put pressure on family members of the restricted person to go back to China.

"In most cases, U.S. citizens only become aware of an exit ban when they attempt to depart the PRC, and there is no reliable mechanism or legal process to find out how long the ban might continue or to contest it in a court of law," it warned.

"Relatives, including minor children, of those under investigation in the PRC may become subject to an exit ban,” it said.

Ran afoul

Yu, Xie and their children left the country after the Shanghai authorities effectively shut down his Jifeng Bookstore in 2018.

The store likely ran afoul of the ruling Chinese Communist Party with its regular hosting of political seminars, and had specialized in high-quality academic books on politics, philosophy, law and history.

Yu said at the time that local authorities had interfered with the store's negotiations for new premises after it was forced out of its home at the end of its lease, according to a Jul. 16, 2017, Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post.

Since she was blocked, police have talked to Xie many times, she said, asking if her husband had published any articles under his pseudonym in the United States and what articles he had uploaded. She said had "actively cooperated" with police in forwarding their questions to Yu, and Yu's reply to the police.

Xie said police were now demanding that Yu return to China, before she would be allowed to leave to take care of her teenage daughters.

"I am innocent, and I will get my freedom to leave the country back, as long as my husband returns to China for investigation," her statement said.

Xie said complying with the request could put the couple's three children in jeopardy, with no legal guardian to take care of them until Xie's return -- if the authorities even allowed that to happen as promised.

"I implore your department to restore my freedom as soon as possible so that I can be reunited with my family," she wrote.

Taken hostage

U.S.-based activist Zhou Fengsuo, who founded the rights group Humanitarian China, said via his Twitter account that he is worried about the travel ban on Xie, saying she is being taken "hostage."

"I'm concerned about the fact that the Shanghai police have Yu Miao’s wife Xie Fang hostage in an attempt to coerce Yu Miao, who is in the United States, to return to China," Zhou wrote.

"The acclaimed Jifeng Bookstore was forced to close in 2018, and Yu and his family came to the United States," he tweeted.

He later told RFA: "It is of course unacceptable that they have abducted his wife, who had nothing to do with Yu Miao's activities, and are now demanding Yu Miao ... go back to China."

“Act of state terrorism”

U.S.-based human rights lawyer Wu Shaoping said Yu had likely done nothing to endanger national security.

"This incident tells us that the Chinese Communist Party's monitoring of its nationals overseas is highly secretive, all-pervasive and very widespread," Wu said. "They use monitoring and the spy network to implement long-arm controls over their people overseas."

"This means that Chinese people daren't even exercise their rights when they're outside China," he said. "It's an act of state terrorism, and it's very typical” of the regime.

A number of countries have recently ordered China to shut down unauthorized police stations operating within their boundaries after a report by Spain-based rights group Safeguard Defenders said one of their main tasks is to persuade overseas dissidents to go back to China.

“Hell on earth”

Meanwhile, Thai police have released on bail a UN-recognized political refugee whom they detained after he staged a lone protest against Chinese President Xi Jinping as he attended the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Bangkok.

Li Nanfei described his two-and-a-half months in detention as "hell on earth."

"I was in a cell less than 100 meters square, with more than 100 people lying and standing," he said. "At peak times, there could be up to 160 people, all sleeping in shifts."

ENG_CHN_LongArmOverseas_01232023.2.jpg
Li Nanfei, shown in an undated photo, has been stranded in Thailand for several years despite being a United Nations-registered refugee. Credit: Li Nanfei

"The bunks are only about 40-50 centimeters wide, and the cell bosses beat you up for being a bit too wide, or the police would instruct the prisoners to beat you, or they'd even beat you themselves," Li said.

Li, who has been stranded in Thailand for several years, was arrested after holding up a placard on a Bangkok street that read: "His Majesty President Xi, put an end to dictatorship in China! Give the people back their freedom!"

Li fled China after being charged with "subversion of state power" in 2013 after he tried to set up a political party, a notion that is anathema to Beijing.

He has no travel documents, and hasn't been offered resettlement in a third country.

"I can't do anything because I don't have a passport: I even have to ask a Thai person if I want to apply for a SIM card," he said. "I have no bank account, and ... I can't work ... or buy a property. I have to ask a Thai person just to rent somewhere."

He said he has little choice but to stay where he is, trying to evade forcible repatriation to China if Thai police decide they want to comply with a request from Beijing.

"Relatively speaking, there's still some fresh air to breathe," he said. "I could try to get to Malaysia or the Philippines in a sailboat, where I might have a chance at freedom, but of course I could die on the way."

He said his former fellow rights activist and good friend Zhang Haitao is currently serving a 19-year jail term at Xinjiang's Shaya Prison for "incitement to subvert state power" and spying.

"My case was much more serious than his, as I was a suspected mastermind,” Li said, “so they're not going to let up on me.”

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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