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China's new national security law proves why it's no fun to be Chinese

Aleesha Matharu | Updated on: 8 July 2015, 14:39 IST
QUICK PILL

The law

  • China has passed a National Security Law covering a variety of areas, ranging from politics to environment and the internet.
  • The government says the ambit of national security is wider than ever before.
  • President Xi Jinping has clamped down on dissent and increased censorship and surveillance since he came to power in 2012.
  • The law, combined with two other draft laws, represents President Xi\'s vision of national security.

The aims

  • Act against \'western values\' and encourage citizens to embrace \'core socialist\' values.
  • Reduce capacity of civil society to criticise the government.
  • Protecting China\'s internet infrastructure. Ban words like Tiananmen Square, democracy and autonomy.
  • It includes polar, space and sea explorations. Also acts against superstitious practices.

Criticism

  • Hong Kong won\'t implement the law as it enjoys autonomy under the \'one country, two systems\' principle.
  • The law has been criticised internationally as a threat to the basic principles of human rights.

Laws to control and monitor cyber space seem to be the flavour of the season in Asia.

Just a month after India rid itself of the ill-worded Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, Pakistan launched into a debate about a cybercrime bill the government wishes to make law - a law which would severely trample on Pakistani citizens' rights on the internet. Thankfully, it hasn't been passed yet.

And last Wednesday, following the herd, China's legislature passed a National Security Law - with the 154 'yes' votes and no objections only serving to highlight the Chinese legislature's rubber stamp tag.

The law has been one year in the making and encompasses a wide array of areas, including the internet, politics, culture, the military, the economy, technology and the environment.

Some unusual inclusions also fall under its ambit - food supply, religious cults and the ambition of exploring outer space and the polar regions.

If things still don't sound unpromising, hear what Zheng Shuna, deputy director of the legislature's commission of legislative affairs, said at a news conference in Beijing on Wednesday: "The meaning and the range of national security is more wide-ranging than in any other time in history."

The vision

Since his ascension to power in late 2012, President Xi Jinping has intensified the crackdown on activism and dissent, ramping up the clampdown of civil society groups, strengthening internet censorship and the monitoring of social media.

His task becomes harder as more and more people take to smartphones and connect to the internet. India is going through similar birth pangs with an exponential increase in mobile phone sales.

The national security law, combined with two other recently published draft laws, constitutes the most expansive articulation yet of President Xi's vision of national security.

Since his ascension to power in 2012, President Xi has intensified the crackdown on activism and dissent

The two other draft laws include a counter-terrorism law, which in its first draft mandated all internet companies operating in China provide 'backdoor' access and encryption keys to the government. All data must be stored on local servers within the country.

The second is a foreign-funded NGO law, which would put the police directly in charge of all NGOs. The aim is to control the activities of such NGOs and their Chinese partners.

Under the foreign NGO law, all non-profit groups, including schools, will also be regulated by the Public Security Ministry.

Both could be passed by the end of the year.

A buffer

But what are these laws, the strictest since the Mao era, aimed at?

The legislation seems particularly odd since existing laws already preserve Communist Party power and criminalise any act deemed to embolden 'subversion of state power'.

The previous national security law, which was put in place in 1993, mainly regulated the work of the China's national security agencies.

Worryingly, the new law is only one piece of the larger national security design. A counter espionage law adopted last year gives almost limitless scope to what can be defined as a 'state secret'.

President Xi's focus on national security only began to become clear when he chaired the first meeting of China's newly-constituted national security commission last April.

Party propaganda cells have ramped up messages warning against 'Western values' - and have been splashing Beijing and other major cities with signs and banners encouraging citizens to embrace 'core socialist values'.

Criticism as a form of subversion

Core to the pending law are provisions to tighten cyber security. The vaguely worded legislation authorises the government to take 'all necessary' steps to safeguard the country's internet infrastructure.

China is already famous for having some of the most onerous internet restrictions.

The government has a track record of coming down hard on criticism of its policies, but things are about to get a lot worse: the new law includes elements that define criticism of the government as a form of subversion.

But despite the constraints, the world's most populous country also has - no surprise - the fastest growing online population: more than 649 million people of the 1.357 billion population are active on the internet.

The Great Firewall of China

Before we forget, it's an internet that is very distinctive from the one we see. Popular sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube and Google are either blocked or severely restricted.

Instead, there's Baidu, a search engine used by 60% of users in China. Facekoo (face cool), RenRen and Kaixin001 (happy net) are some trendy social networking sites - most are replicas of Facebook.

The number of users on Weibo, China's equivalent to Twitter, stands at nearly 250 million. For perspective, there are currently 302 million Twitter users across the world.

The government also habitually bans hundreds of terms it deems sensitive - the obvious ones include 'Tiananmen Square', 'democracy', 'autonomous', 'revolt' and 'one-party dictatorship' and 'assemble'.

In fact, a few people tried to use various words to allude to the Tiananmen Square protest during last year's anniversary including 'today', 'tomorrow', 'that year', 'that day' and 'special day', but they are were all blocked at the time.

The draft for a foreign-funded NGO law aims to control activities of such NGOs and their Chinese partners

Complying with these rules, other companies too prevent users from accessing sensitive data. You can't download a Dalai Lama application on an iPhone and iTouch there. Yahoo! and Bing have filtered searches so that they can do business in China.

Google actually removed its filter in 2011 on google.cn after it accused the Chinese government of trying to break into the email accounts of certain activists.

The authorities have also made it nearly impossible for internet users to employ virtual private networks that allow people to evade the government filters and restrictions collectively known as the 'Great Firewall'.

Cultural values

Analysts claim that the government is trying to give security forces and courts greater flexibility in quieting Chinese civil society and narrowing the influence of Western thought.

Proof of that lies in the language of the new law, which references the need for "carrying forth the exceptional culture of the Chinese nationality" and "defending and resisting against negative cultural infiltration".

President Xi's views about Western culture are made obvious by remarks such as: "We have to beware not to fall into the snare of division or Westernisation".

More than at any other time since the Communists seized power in 1949, some scholars say the law is being used in the service of ideology and maintaining party survival.

'Space, the deep sea, polar regions'

There is hardly any realm of the country's activity that doesn't fall under the rubric of national security risk in the new law - from the need to punish 'illegal cult activities' to China's ambitions to explore outer space and polar regions.

Harsher punishment will now be handed out to those involved in cults or superstitious activities that hamper the implementation of laws and regulations.

"Some standing committee members, participants and departments suggested that in space, the deep sea, polar regions and other strategic new frontiers, China has real and potential major national interests and faces security threats and challenges," the official Xinhua news agency reported.

By including seabeds, Antarctica, and outer space as national security interests, the new law is also bound to make China's close and distant neighbours more nervous about the country's long-term intentions.

At the news conference, Zheng defended the addition, arguing that Western countries had been enacting similar laws since the 1980s.

"During the process of resource exploration, expedition and utilisation in the above areas, the Chinese government has the right to guarantee the safety of its related activities, assets and personnel according to the law," she said.

China has already been steadily increasing its presence in Antarctica.

The push back

There are very few countries in the world who are taking steps to reduce access to the internet and curb the free flow of information.

Iceland, in fact, just this week, abolished its blasphemy law, which has been in place since 1940, so that people can speak "without fear of punishment".

China's national security law and the other two pieces of related legislation have prompted expressions of concerns from business groups, journalist associations and other entities.

Amnesty International, in an appeal to the Chinese government to scrap the law, said: "The leadership of the Party and its monopoly on political power is explicitly listed as being part of 'national security' in the law."

The new law severely reduces the capacity of civil society to criticise the government and hold it accountable

In a press release, International Federation of Journalists Asia Pacific said: "The new law will destroy the basic principles of press freedom and undermine the rights of the people to information."

Last month, European Union Chamber of Commerce in China president Joerg Wuttke said the texts' "vagueness creates a great deal of uncertainty for business, as it implicitly leaves the Chinese government with the option of undermining foreign market access based on unclear and broad national security considerations."

Noises against the law from within China have, obviously, been hard to find online.

The Hong Kong refusal

The passing of the national security law stoked fears among pro-democracy politicians in Hong Kong that the city would face pressure to enact Article 23 of the Basic Law. Article 23 requires Hong Kong to pass laws on treason, sedition and subversion.

But the legislation does not apply to Hong Kong under the 'one country, two systems' principle that gives the former British colony extensive autonomy.

However, the law does refer to Hong Kong, saying that the territory, along with Macau, has a "responsibility to uphold national security".

Alan Leong, a pro-democracy lawmaker in Hong Kong, told the broadcaster RTHK it "can be considered as giving (sic) pressure to Hong Kong" to enact its own security law.

In a statement on Wednesday, the Hong Kong government said that it has no plans to adjust local legislation to the new law.

In 2003, a security bill put forward by the territory's government sparked a protest that saw half a million people taking to the streets before the Hong Kong authorities scrapped the measure.

Crackdown

Beijing has also toughened its hold on Tibet, where more than 100 Buddhist monks and nuns have burned themselves to death in the past five years to protest against Chinese rule.

This is also true for the huge western territory of Xinjiang, where the state faces increasingly violent action by Muslim Uighurs who oppose the Chinese rule imposed by military force around 1950.

It's easy to see that the Communist party is tightening its grip on Chinese society.

The new law severely reduces the capacity of civil society to criticise the government and hold it accountable. It clearly states its aim is to implement military defence to prevent and resist invasions and to stop "armed subversion and separatism".

At home, President Xi's anti-corruption purge has sent has sent such a chill through the governing apparatus

Campaigners against the draft anti-terror law have also said that it contains measures for a "non-stop, strike hard campaign" in Xinjiang - signalling that a crackdown initially intended to last a year could continue indefinitely.

Already, scores of people have been sentenced to death while hundreds have been jailed or detained.

This will hardly be news to the countless activists, critics and human rights defenders who have been thrown in jail over the years on baseless national security crimes such as 'separatism' (Uighur economist Ilham Tohti, life imprisonment), 'inciting subversion' (Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, 11 years), or 'leaking state secrets' (the veteran journalist Gao Yu, seven years).

No choice but to conform

So what's the Chinese media saying?

The People's Daily China report on the law first focuses primarily on China's interests to safeguard "new strategic frontiers" such as the polar regions and internationals seabeds.

After lightly discussing the legislation, one that will affect how each Chinese citizen functions, the report, in the same breath, takes a turn to address National People's Congress (NPC) Standing Committee's concerns about "items related to school bus safety" where "drivers of overloaded school buses may be incarcerated".

Comments at the end include Rene Chang's note: "Sounds like a good law. This can do nothing but good for China."

Home and the world

At home, the president launched his anti-corruption purge in 2013 - more far-reaching and lasting than any other. This has sent has sent a chill through the governing apparatus.

But internationally, President Xi has displayed ever-increasing confidence.

China has offered large sums to governments in Latin America to gain influence. Its firms have been investing in Europe, North America and Australia as well as the old natural-resources-hunting ground of Africa.

The Beijing government has created the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and had the satisfaction of more than 50 countries, led by the UK, joining despite warnings from Washington not to do so.

Most recently, Beijing was suspected of being behind a massive hack into a US federal government computer server that resulted in the theft of personnel and security clearance records of 14 million employees and contractors. Chinese officials have denied this.

But the scariest part is the vagueness of the law as anyone can be charged for anything they do, say or write on the internet depending on who's interpreting the law.

It's paranoia at its finest, taking two steps backwards for every one step forward. And the timing proves that this security agenda is the centrepiece of a broad political hardening over which President Xi has presided - one which thoroughly reinforces the control of the Communist Party.

First published: 8 July 2015, 14:39 IST
 
Aleesha Matharu @almatharu

Born in Bihar, raised in Delhi and schooled in Dehradun, Aleesha writes on a range of subjects and worked at The Indian Express before joining Catch as a sub-editor. When not at work you can find her glued to the TV, trying to clear a backlog of shows, or reading her Kindle. Raised on a diet of rock 'n' roll, she's hit occasionally by wanderlust. After an eight-year stint at Welham Girls' School, Delhi University turned out to be an exercise in youthful rebellion before she finally trudged her way to J-school and got the best all-round student award. Now she takes each day as it comes, but isn't an eternal optimist.

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