This Monday, Sept. 14, 2020, the U.S. Department of State dropped its official travel warning for China down a notch from the long-standing "Level 4: Do Not Travel" advisory originally issued back at the start of the pandemic. However, eager travelers shouldn’t celebrate just yet.
Less than 24 hours later, both the U.S. and U.K. issued travel advisories for citizens traveling to Hong Kong and mainland China, citing the risk of arbitrary arrest. The U.S. Department of State's warning cautions that “the PRC [People's Republic of China] government arbitrarily enforces local laws, including by carrying out arbitrary and wrongful detentions and through the use of exit bans on U.S. citizens and citizens of other countries without due process of law.”
The travel warnings come nearly three months after China imposed a national new security law on Hong Kong back in June. Essentially, it makes it definitively illegal for anyone to voice subversive views on the Chinese government, regardless if they are a Chinese citizen and regardless if the alleged subversive behavior took place while in China or Hong Kong. The controversial law is a sharp undercut to freedoms of speech, and the fact that it applies to everyone—even people outside of China and Hong Kong—is unprecedented.
The U.S. warning cautions that “U.S. citizens traveling or residing in China or Hong Kong may be detained without access to U.S. consular services or information about their alleged crime” and could also “be subjected to prolonged interrogations and extended detention”—all without any legal rights. And that, in most cases, U.S. citizens aren’t even aware that an exit ban exists until they try to leave, only to become detained or arrested. Lack of legal process means detained travelers have no way to “find out how long the ban might continue or contest it” in court.
There’s also nothing that says the offending subversive activity—which is up to the interpretation of the Chinese government—is limited to public displays. According to the U.S. travel warning, even private electronic messages that are critical of the Chinese government may cause travelers to find themselves in hot water.