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Former Shanghai bookseller hit by ‘travel ban’

    HONG KONG (AP) — Chinese police have prevented a woman from returning to her Florida home in an attempt to force her husband to return to China, she wrote in a letter he made public.

    The case appears to be the most recent example of Chinese authorities imposing an “exit ban” on a person’s family members to pressure them to return.

    In an appeal to authorities, 51-year-old Fang Xie wrote that police have told her she is “innocent” but she cannot leave until her husband, a former bookseller who left China after his shop was closed for political reasons , gives himself up.

    She was banned from boarding a plane in Shanghai last August, her husband Miao Yu said, and has been unable to leave China since.

    Travel bans, which critics liken to hostage-taking, have affected both Chinese citizens and foreigners. The US government includes travel bans as a risk in its travel advice for people going to China.

    Yu declined to provide his wife’s contact details, citing concerns for her safety. He did, however, arrange for an Associated Press journalist to participate in a conversation between them in which she confirmed she had written the letter, but declined to comment further.

    The Shanghai Public Security Bureau did not immediately respond to faxed inquiries on Monday, and a State Department spokesperson said she was not aware of the matter.

    But Chinese prosecutors have previously described the practice of using travel bans on family members to pressure wanted people to return. Prosecutors wrote in notes on the case of a former Chinese businessman accused of stealing $6 million who moved to Canada that they set up a special task force to “vigorously force his survival” and imposed travel bans on his son, daughter-in-law and ex-wife as part of a campaign to “control his relatives and shake off his emotional support.”

    Many countries can prohibit people accused of crimes or required to testify in legal proceedings from leaving. But scholars say China’s use of travel bans exceeds these international standards.

    Yu ran one of Shanghai’s best-known independent bookstores until 2018, when local authorities stopped his Jifeng Bookstore from renewing its lease, effectively putting it out of business. At the time, Yu said, a representative from the public security agency told him his shop had received “too many sensitive scientists” and “sensitive calls.”

    The couple moved to America in 2019, when Yu started a master’s degree in political science, and Xie came as the wife of a student visa holder. They settled in Florida to tutor their children who attend school there. Yu now studies journalism in Orlando and said he has not been active in politics since he went abroad.

    Xie returned to Shanghai in 2022 to take care of her ailing mother, and the 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, saying she was “suspected of endangering national security,” he said.

    But the police told her a different story, she wrote in an appeal to authorities Yu posted on social media about two weeks ago.

    “You clearly told me I’m innocent,” she wrote. “Once my husband returns to China for an investigation, this can be exchanged for my freedom to leave.”

    Yu, who had planned a trip to China to visit family and friends after his wife’s return, canceled his own plans.

    The pair believe they are three pseudonymous articles that police accuse Yu of publishing from the United States, about Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin and those involved in China’s pro-democracy protest movement in 1989.

    Yu said he is not the author of the articles, but police told Xie they traced them to an IP address associated with Yu.

    Yu said his wife can live normally in China and spends most of her time in her home in Shanghai.

    The couple speaks daily via the Chinese messaging service WeChat. But the divorce was hard on them.

    In her letter, Xie writes that she is worried about her daughters, who are applying for university this year. “When adolescents lose their mother’s love, it leads to lifelong regret.”

    Yu said he feels guilty that his work affected his wife, who did not work at Jifeng Bookstore. It feels like I have an “open wound,” Yu said in a video interview from their Florida home. “I don’t know when I can hug my wife and when I can safely go back to my hometown. and free.”

    For the past six months, Yu said, he’s been thinking about going back to China in exchange for his wife’s freedom. He did not continue for fear that his children would be left alone if the authorities forbade them both to leave. Their twin daughters turned 18 this month, he added. They also have a 22-year-old son.

    Yu published his wife’s letter on WeChat without telling her beforehand, he said. It disappeared hours after he first posted to WeChat, but caught the attention of Chinese media. A similar post on his Twitter account attracted nearly 170,000 views.

    The next day, the 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, 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 in making him and others after the departure could not leave.

    Yu said he decided to talk to the media because he hoped to attract the attention of the US government ahead of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to China in early February. “It’s a very small hope. But now I have no other good hope here,” he said.