Yu Miao was forced to close his Shanghai store. Now his wife is stuck in China.
By James T. Areddy
January 28, 2023
ORLANDO, Fla.—Yu Miao built Shanghai’s Jifeng Bookstore into a bastion of liberal thought, until it became a prime target in Chinese leader Xi Jinping ‘s assault on free speech.
Chinese displeasure with Mr. Yu has followed him to Florida, where he moved his family after authorities effectively forced the bookshop out of business in 2018. Now, even in the U.S., the 50-year-old Mr. Yu is facing consequences of his gambit to push against the limits of Chinese censorship.
In August, as his wife was finishing a trip back to Shanghai, local authorities told her they want Mr. Yu to return to China for questions about his U.S. online activity, and she can’t leave the country until he does, the family says.
The family’s predicament illustrates key warnings from Washington about Mr. Xi’s authoritarian methods: that China is determined to extend its controls on domestic dissent into the U.S. and that the regime uses travel bans to gain leverage over critics. Like his wife, Xie Fang, 51, and their three children studying in the U.S., Mr. Yu remains a Chinese citizen, and he says he fears prosecution should he return to the country.
Jifeng Bookstore in Shanghai tested the limits of Chinese censorship by selling provocative titles and hosting lectures on taboo subjects.
PHOTO: EVA LI/SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST/GETTY IMAGES
Chinese authorities have told Ms. Xie they suspect her husband is the author of three articles critical of China’s governance written under an obvious pen name and published online in the U.S., according to the family.
Mr. Yu says he didn’t write the commentaries, one of which detailed similarities between China’s leader, Mr. Xi, and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Yang Zili, a senior editor at the Washington-based, pro-democracy news service yibaochina.com that published them in 2022, also says Mr. Yu wasn’t the author.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs didn’t respond to questions, and its embassy in Washington requested that questions be put to “relevant, competent authorities.” In Shanghai, the Public Security Bureau, or police, didn’t respond to questions about Ms. Xie.
In response to questions about exit bans in the past, Chinese authorities have stressed that the rights and interests of people in China are fully protected by law.
Mr. Yu says that however Chinese authorities reached their conclusions, such methods pose a “threat for all Chinese people in the U.S.” and adds that he shouldn’t need to explain to Chinese authorities any activities outside China.
Mr. Yu says he is shocked his profile might harm his wife, who never had a role in the bookstore or other connection to his work.
Yu Miao published a compendium of memorable lectures hosted by Shanghai’s Jifeng Bookstore before authorities forced its closure in 2018.
PHOTO: JAMES T. AREDDY/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
On top of fearing possible prosecution in China for himself, Mr. Yu worries his wife’s exit may be blocked even if he does go.
In a letter to local police this month, Ms. Xie pleaded her case, saying, “You made it very clear that I am innocent of any wrongdoing; and as long as my husband returns to China for investigation, I can regain my freedom and leave China.”
Without her knowledge, Mr. Yu says, he posted his wife’s letter online. It quickly disappeared from WeChat in China, but it has gained over 160,000 views on Twitter, which is blocked in China and is outside Chinese censors’ reach.
Mr. Yu said he is trying to limit the fallout for his wife by keeping her in the dark about his efforts on her behalf, though he says he is confident she would support him. He declined to provide Ms. Xie’s contact details; she couldn’t be reached.
By speaking publicly about his wife’s situation, Mr. Yu says he hopes authorities will back off and let her travel. But he concedes his actions might backfire and lengthen the family’s ordeal.
It is a high-stakes game of chicken. “If I do this, perhaps change will occur,” says Mr. Yu. “I don’t know if it’s positive change or negative change.”
He reasons it is worth a try. On top of holidays, Ms. Xie missed a birthday celebration planned for her in Florida in August, the couple’s 25th wedding anniversary in December and this month’s 18th birthday of their twin daughters, now marked near their front door by deflating silver balloons in the shapes of 1 and 8. In her letter, Ms. Xie lamented, “When adolescents are deprived of their mother’s love, it inevitably results in lifelong suffering and regret.”
Picking at grilled beef at a Japanese restaurant on a recent evening, the daughters said they don’t know how to talk about the situation and haven’t told teachers or friends. One used the word “angry”; the other interjected, “Depressing.”
The State Department warns American visitors to China that they risk being stopped from departing the country. Exit bans particularly affect ethnic Chinese travelers and might be used by the government to “pressure family members of the restricted individual to return” to the People’s Republic of China from abroad, according to the agency’s travel advisory for China.
A further complication for Mr. Yu’s family is that everyone remains a citizen of China. All five of them, including a 22-year-old son pursuing graduate studies in California, hold U.S. student visas. On top of his previous academic degrees, Mr. Yu is pursuing journalism at an Orlando community college.
Their status leaves limited scope for U.S. diplomats to press Chinese authorities about Ms. Xie’s exit ban, as they try to do when American citizens are involved. In response to questions about Ms. Xie’s situation, a State Department spokesman said, “We remain concerned with the PRC’s unjust detention of individuals and the use of coercive exit bans to prevent individuals from leaving China.”
In response to U.S. travel warnings, the Chinese Foreign Ministry has told Washington to “fully respect the facts” and “not engage in unwarranted political manipulation.”
Before he was a bookseller, Mr. Yu was a successful entrepreneur, who made money in the 1990s by importing foreign shampoo brands. But in glittery Shanghai, he saw financial wealth building faster than civil society, and he decided a bookstore could serve as a venue for sharing ideas.
Booksellers became vulnerable during Mr. Xi’s rule, including in Hong Kong, where a clutch of people associated with publications that poked fun at China’s leaders were prosecuted on offenses such as illegally providing intelligence overseas.
Bookstores became vulnerable during Xi Jinping’s rule, including in Hong Kong, where a 2016 photo shows police walking past missing-person notices for bookseller Gui Minhai.
PHOTO: ANTHONY WALLACE/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
Literally an underground bookstore, Jifeng was located in the subway station beneath Shanghai’s main library. Mr. Yu stocked legal though edgy literature, such as chronicles of suffering by Chinese intellectuals and certain Taiwanese texts, but made a bigger impact hosting lectures by scholars and authors in a bid to stoke debate on topics like philosophy and social justice. Some drew audiences of 300 people—and state scrutiny.
The Communist Party vision promoted by China’s leader, Mr. Xi, left little room for the kind of debate Mr. Yu encouraged, and he says Jifeng faced a cascade of fines from regulatory agencies that accused it of selling illegal Buddhist texts, doing false advertising and violating fire codes. A list of events canceled by authorities and later published by Mr. Yu included lectures on constitutionalism and feminism.
“All [China’s] problems, if you dig further, will connect to the regime, to the governance, to the political system,” says Mr. Yu.
By late 2017, the writing was on the wall. Jifeng began posting the number of days until its lease expired, and patrons filled a board with goodbye notes.
Today, Mr. Yu lives in a gated community surrounded by alligator-infested lakes. He is cut off from daily life in China, though the cluttered tabletops of his home are stacked with books such as “Exiles” and “Psychology of Totalitarianism” that reflect his passion.
The former bookseller says the concern is his family and shows off how each member, including the family’s shiba inu, is represented by a letter in the word “whisky” that is tattooed on his left arm.
“I don’t want my wife and kids implicated because of what I have done,” he says.