China News

China’s Exit Bans Are the New Normal: Executives Must Prepare

China's wrongful detainment of foreign citizens, particularly corporate executives, in the last 18 months is part of their global dominance efforts. The expanded espionage law gives the Chinese government significant authority over individuals and their belongings. Companies must adopt a comprehensive strategy that provides thorough risk assessment, cybersecurity measures and strategic planning for the short, medium, and long term to ensure employee safety and corporate stability.
Customs Office

Beijing Capital Airport (PEK) Terminal 2, June 14, 2017, China. People Waiting Outside Departure Gate and Customs Office. © Min Jing /

February 21, 2024 02:47 EDT

For years, China has been vying for global leadership in several sectors, including finance, technology and its military, directly competing with the US. While China hasn’t succeeded in its ascent to international superstardom, in the last 18 months, it has become the worldwide leader of one less-laudable metric: the wrongful detainment of foreign citizens.

Corporate executives traveling to China on business have been pulled out of line in airports or confronted in their hotels by government officials and held for undetermined periods. These unannounced exit bans on travelers are a byproduct of China’s expanded espionage law, which gives the Chinese government an incredible amount of authority over business executives and the information, technology and other personal items they bring. The law’s passage and enforcement are the latest in many threatening Chinese government actions.

Overlooking these threats is not an option. Corporations are responsible for protecting their employees and must respond strategically to China’s actions. Failing to prepare for the uncertainties thoroughly and ignoring the risks of travel to and from China is an inexcusable oversight that threatens the security of essential personnel.

Businesses must face the threat that the Chinese Communist Party presents with a three-pronged approach that addresses the short-, medium- and long-term contingencies of doing business in China. This strategy is the only way to mitigate Chinese interference with foreign travel and protect our national economy now and in the future.

The first step in risk mitigation is working with vendors to conduct a risk assessment of every employee considering travel to China. The Chinese government’s sophisticated surveillance system includes reviewing travelers’ professional and personal pasts. A job with the US government or a social media post that references Taiwan as a country is enough to flag a business executive as a threat to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and could lead to detainment and questioning.

Companies should partner with vendors that specialize in deep-dive background checks, open source and dark web capabilities to comb through traveling executives’ previous jobs and past comments on topics related to China, looking for anything that the CCP might flag, whether a career in intelligence or a comment about the Uyghurs. The Chinese government will do the same when US executives enter its borders.

Cyber threats and the importance of mitigation technology

Even for executives deemed low-risk, there is still an inherent threat that they must be aware of when traveling to China. Professionals traveling with sensitive information should be aware of cyber threats that may compromise their data. Leaders must guide their subordinates on keeping information safe.

China’s vast cyber capabilities can significantly endanger proprietary information, even for those not detained. Hostile actors wield various tools — such as inspections, insecure networks and even public USB charging ports — to gain access to mobile devices and private documents. Business leaders should invest in cyber crime mitigation technology such as burner devices, dedicated email accounts for travel, encrypted messaging and portable USBs with hardware-based encryption for their workforce.

These short-term safety measures alone don’t solve the medium- and long-term realities of doing business in China. They merely provide some breathing room while leaders reassess what is best for their employees and their business in the long term. In tandem with these immediate steps, corporations and their leaders must consider the medium- and long-term realities of doing business in China.

Building out avenues of extraction today is the only way to guarantee corporate security, employee safety and financial longevity in the years to come. Businesses must prepare for the possibility of losing the entire supply chain or being shut out of the Chinese market. Otherwise, they may find themselves forced to make sudden shifts and lose billions in the process, as BP did when it pulled out of Russia after the invasion of Ukraine.

The door to business in China is closing, and executives must begin minimizing their profile before it slams. Exit bans are the most recent example of geopolitical tensions bleeding into the corporate world, but there is no indication that it will be the last. We owe it to our employees, stakeholders and nation to be prepared for further escalation and greater instability.

Leaders must develop robust plans that minimize risk in the short term and Chinese dependence in the months and years to come. Those who don’t will run to catch up when tensions finally come to a head.

[Liam Roman edited this article]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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