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The United States has issued a recommendation for Americans to reconsider traveling to China due to concerns regarding arbitrary law enforcement, exit bans, and the risk of wrongful detentions. The advisory comes in the wake of a 78-year-old U.S. citizen receiving a life sentence on spying charges in May. Furthermore, the recent passage of a comprehensive Foreign Relations Law in China, which threatens countermeasures against those perceived as harming China’s interests, has also prompted the advisory.

China has recently enacted a counterespionage law with broad language, causing apprehension within the foreign business community. This has resulted in office raids and the passing of a law to sanction foreign critics. The U.S. advisory highlights that the Chinese government arbitrarily enforces local laws, including imposing exit bans on U.S. citizens and citizens of other countries, without adhering to fair and transparent legal processes. It warns that U.S. citizens traveling or residing in China may be detained without access to U.S. consular services or information about the alleged crime.

The advisory further states that Chinese authorities possess wide discretion to designate various documents, data, statistics, or materials as state secrets, and they may detain and prosecute foreign nationals for alleged espionage. The listed potential offenses include participating in demonstrations, sending critical electronic messages about Chinese policies, or even conducting research in sensitive areas. Exit bans could be employed to compel individuals to cooperate with Chinese government investigations, pressure family members to return to China, resolve civil disputes in favor of Chinese citizens, or exert leverage over foreign governments.

Similar advisories were issued for the semi-autonomous Chinese regions of Hong Kong and Macao, demonstrating the U.S. government’s concerns across different areas. It is worth noting that the U.S. has previously issued advisories to its citizens regarding China, although recent warnings have mainly focused on the risks associated with strict lockdowns during China’s three-year border closure due to its “zero-COVID” policy.

China typically responds with anger to what it perceives as U.S. attempts to undermine its authoritarian Communist Party-led system. China has also released its own travel advisories regarding the U.S., cautioning against crime, anti-Asian discrimination, and the high cost of emergency medical assistance. As of now, China has not provided an immediate response to the U.S. travel advisory.

Due to China’s authoritarian political system and the Communist Party’s absolute control over legal matters, details of the allegations against the accused spy, John Shing-Wan Leung, remain unavailable. Leung, who also holds permanent residency in Hong Kong, was detained in Suzhou on April 15, 2021, during a period when China had closed its borders and significantly restricted domestic movement to control the spread of COVID-19.

These travel warnings come at a time of strained U.S.-China relations, with disagreements on trade, technology, Taiwan, and human rights. However, both sides are taking steps to improve the situation, such as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent visit to Beijing and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s upcoming trip to Beijing. China has also appointed a new ambassador to Washington, who presented his credentials in a meeting with President Joe Biden at the White House.

Despite attempts to improve relations, other incidents have highlighted the contentiousness in the relationship. Last month, China lodged a formal protest after President Biden referred to Chinese leader Xi Jinping as a “dictator,” shortly after Blinken’s visit. President Biden disregarded the protest, asserting that his words would not negatively impact U.S.-China relations, and expressed his expectation to meet with Xi in the future. Biden has also received criticism from Beijing for stating that the U.S. would defend Taiwan if China were to attack it. He has made it clear that he does not intend to change his frank statements about China.