Stuck in China

Most foreigners on China’s notorious blacklist cannot enter the country. The case of John Graham Harper is the opposite.

John Graham Harper arrived in China from Australia 20 years ago, after his father secured a teaching position in Shenzhen.

Following an obsession with bodybuilding and martial arts, Harper started training people in Shenzhen when he was 18 years old.

“I didn’t even know what a ‘personal trainer’ means. What do you do? And my (older) brother told me, ‘you tell people, do you want to look like Arnold (Schwarzenegger)? I’ll make you look like that.’ So, I thought that’s brilliant,” he said. His first customer was his mom.

He quickly became occupied with a career in physical training, opening gyms and co-founded White Collar Fight Night, a charity organization that holds boxing events for white collar workers. All event donations go to the One Foundation.

Harper opened a gym, Fresh, with two other partners, and was the legal representative. He said the other two partners did not want to risk being the legal representative of the gym in case something happened—they had families. Five years ago, they sold the gym handing it over, with the membership debt, to a new buyer. Harper said “sold” is not the correct term it was more a simple change of ownership and no money was exchanged.

“The strategy was this thing (the gym) you (the buyer) need to take this. For me that was the win.” Harper said. He added the process was thought to be straight-forward making it the end of the story.

Three years later, Harper was set to go on holiday in the Philippines, when he was detained at the airport.

“My name is on a blacklist in China, which means I can’t cross the border. And the reason I can’t is because I have a court case that I need to figure out,” he said.

He thought it was a mistake, at first, but was able to trace it back to the gym. He said the court attempted to contact him by phone and by mail. He missed the phone calls, and the letters were sent to the wrong address. By the time Harper found out, a verdict had already been given. He had to pay over 350,000 RMB to the new owner of the gym. Harper appealed the case to a higher court.

For two years he studied the law, spoke with attorneys and started a GoFundMe to pay for an attorney.

It all came to a head when he was hosting White Collar Fight Night in 2019, and the police took him out of the ring and forced him to start making payments of 20,000 RMB a month to the plaintiff.

Harper’s appeal was denied on April 27, 2020. He said he could have easily won the case if he knew about it in the early stages. For now, he is doing what he can to make the monthly payments and is stuck in China until the full amount is paid.