China’s mysterious ‘Bian Kong’ system that can bar anyone from entering or leaving the country
- The controversial border control system is based on ‘vague’ laws and has been accused of being subject to political overreach
- Cryptocurrency billionaire Justin Sun was placed on the list in June 2018 but still somehow managed to leave China and travel to the US in October
It is public knowledge that China, like many other sovereign countries, has a blacklist as part of its border control system, barring people from entering or even leaving the country.
A lack of details about how the system works, such as what infractions cause a person to be placed on the list, has raised concerns that it is growing rapidly and that decisions are subject to political overreach. The US Department of State warned its citizens in January that Chinese authorities have asserted that they have broad authority to prohibit US citizens from leaving China.
Bian Kong, or border control, is now a buzzword in reports about travel restrictions on Chinese tycoons and prominent political dissidents. The debate about the system heated up in July after Chinese magazine Caixin reported that Justin Sun, a 29-year-old billionaire who amassed wealth via a questionable cryptocurrency, was placed on China’s border control list in June 2018 but still somehow managed to leave China and travel to the US in October.
Sun’s case was the latest in a series of prominent Chinese figures reportedly prohibited from leaving the country.
China’s Ministry of Public Security and the National Immigration Administration have not released the number of people on the list, let alone their identities. But since the threshold is believed to be relatively low, the number of people on the list could be in the hundreds of thousands or even millions, according to estimates by lawyers and researchers.
A paper written by Chen Qingan, a researcher at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, which was published in the Chinese journal Politics and Law in late 2018, said that China had 178 laws and regulations about border control, a fragmented system that enables courts, prosecutors, police and other agencies to ban targeted people.
“All levels of the country’s national security, public security, customs, smuggling inspection, prosecutors, courts, taxation, other judicial organs and relevant administrative agencies have the right to restrict the exit of ordinary citizens,” Chen wrote.
Under Chinese law, anyone who is involved in criminal or civil lawsuits or investigations, or even a person who could “assist” in police investigations, can be placed on the banned list.
Beijing-based lawyer Xu Chendi said China’s border control has its legal basis and, like every other country, it is a necessary way to prevent criminal suspects or those with national security concerns from escaping the country.
“But the implementation has been arbitrary and it is misused to bar activists or even their family members from leaving the country in the name of ‘risks to national security’,” Xu said.
Another lawyer, who asked not to be named, said that “the law is vague, and in practice the police have unchecked power over whether to prevent people from leaving the country”.
A police officer familiar with the border control system, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that local police first send a list of names to the provincial level public security department, which often automatically approves the requests and inputs the names into the border control system.
The target is often not notified of the ban, and may only learn of it after being informed at the border when they try to leave the country. The police officer said the bans are often for less than a year, but can be extended.
A recent case was reported by Fengxian News, a newspaper run by a district government in Shanghai. According to the report in March, Shanghai Fengxian Court ordered a company to pay around 220,000 yuan (US$31,885) to a local service provider but the company failed to pay on time.
The female non-Chinese passport holder in charge of the company was placed on the banned list. She only found out a few weeks later, and after contacting the court to make the payment, was removed from the list, according to the newspaper.
There is often no appeal process in place to have a ban lifted if the person believes it was implemented in error, according to Chen from the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.
But, according to the police officer, there are loopholes in the system which can leave gaps of hours or even days between the expiration of a ban and the renewal which a person can take advantage of. Caixin speculated that this was one of the possible explanations for Sun’s ability to leave China.
A person fleeing the country may also try extreme measures to test whether he is on the exit ban list. In 2015, after Beijing launched a widespread investigation into financial fraud, a tycoon fled to Shenzhen with the intent of leaving the country. At 1am, he was informed by phone that he should leave for Hong Kong immediately. He rushed to the 24-hour border crossing accompanied by his aide and carrying a single suitcase.
At the border, according to a family member who heard the story directly from the tycoon, he asked his aide to go first to check if the ban had been imposed, and only when the aide was allowed to cross, did he follow.