Beijing's new anti-spying rules could put to jail any foreign citizen living in China

The international community is wary of China’s latest amendments to its anti-espionage legislation that comes into effect from July 1st 2023, which outright ban transfer of any information related to national security. The new rules passed by the National People’s Congress (NPC) standing committee broaden the definition of spying and western security analysts wonder if it will become a tool for China to jail any foreign citizen living in the country under the pretext of violating national interest. 

16.05.2023 22:00
Piše: Valerio Fabbri
Ključne besede:   China   espionage   law   Bejing   Xi Jinping   Japan   Nicholas Burns   USA   Bain & Company   Mintz Group   Astellas Pharma

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President Xi Jinping has made national security a key focus of his administration since taking office in 2012.

The revised Counter-Espionage Law is the first update since 2014. Under the new legislation all "documents, data, materials, and items related to national security and interests" are under the same protection as state secrets following the revisions, according to the full text of the revised law published by Xinhua. It expands the definition of espionage to include cyber attacks against state organs or critical information infrastructure.


The revised law allows authorities carrying out an anti-espionage investigation to gain access to data, electronic equipment, information on personal property and also to ban border crossings. Cyber-attacks are also classed as acts of espionage, however the law does not define what falls under China’s national security or interests. Such a crucial omission can only mean keeping the law vague enough and broad enough to be used against anyone at any time.


The revision maintains the vague wording "other espionage activities", which has been criticized as leaving room for a broad interpretation and arbitrary enforcement of the law. Considering that China also requires internet providers to cooperate in detecting spies, clampdown targets can also include social media posts and communication between Chinese and foreign parties. President Xi Jinping has made national security a key focus of his administration since taking office in 2012 and analysts say these revisions are evidence of that stricter regime as suspicion of the United States and its allies grows. 


A tit-for-tat exchange seems to be already undergoing between the US and China. A few days 78-year-old American citizen has been sentenced to life in prison by a Chinese court on spying charges. Shortly thereafter the US arrested a Chinese-American citizen on charges of acting as an unregistered foreign agent for Beijing. Asia Times reported that the US was among the first countries to seek clarifications about the new amendments. US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns has asked Beijing to clarify the newly-amended counter-espionage law which he says could make illegal some ordinary duties of American business people, academics and journalists in the country.


According to Asia Times, the definition of offenders will be expanded from people who "join or accept tasks from" an espionage organization to those who "take refuge in" it. The coverage will also be widened from "state secrets and intelligence" to "other documents, data, materials and items related to national security and interests". During a webinar organized by The Stimson Center, a Washington-based think tank on Tuesday, Burns said: "This is a law that could potentially make illegal in China the kind of mundane activities that businesses would have to do. We need to know more about it so we are asking questions here in Beijing."


The ambassador said that American firms have to do due diligence before they can agree to major investment deals, while they also need to have full access to economic data to make projections.


Foreign enterprises are also likely to be concerned following recent reported investigations by Chinese authorities on the U.S. consulting firm Bain & Company and a raid on the American due-diligence company Mintz Group. Foreign governments are especially concerned whether Chinese companies, particularly in the tech sector, would be mandated to offer their vast amounts of data to the authorities. For instance, one article of the law mandates that "all State organs, armed forces, political parties and public groups, and all enterprises and organizations, have the obligation to prevent and stop espionage activities and maintain national security".


Another article encourages ordinary citizens to take part in national anti-espionage efforts by reporting to the authorities any activity deemed to be suspicious and endangering national security.


In recent years, Bejing has detained dozens of Chinese and foreign nationals on suspicion of espionage, such as an executive at Japanese drugmaker Astellas Pharma who was detained in the capital last month. Espionage cases are usually tried in secret due to their links to national security. Japan wants the release of the Astellas Pharma executive, but Beijing has been largely quiet on the matter, with its new Ambassador to Japan, Wu Jianghao, saying at a news conference only that the detainee engaged in illegal spying activity. No resolution to the issue is in sight.


Some Japanese companies have begun refraining from sending employees to China on business due to safety concerns, a decision that could accelerate the ongoing shift of business and production bases out of China to other countries. 


Defending the new law, the Global Times argued that "an increasing number of espionage cases against China have been found" since 2014, requiring the amendments. "This fully demonstrates the necessity and urgency for China to update its anti-espionage law to protect its national security. No one is in the position to criticise China’s legitimate actions", the newspaper said, "and no one has the right to use this to throw mud at China’s business environment".


The ABC quoted Teng Biao, a former human rights lawyer in China and a visiting Professor of Law at the University of Chicago, as saying that the law would raise the risk of abuse, since it does not define terms like "espionage organizations and their agents", "enemies", and "national security" clearly or definitively. "In practice, for example, criticising the government could be considered a way to endanger 'national security' and get sentenced as a crime like 'inciting subversion of state power''", Teng said.


"In fact, it [the state] is deliberately taking advantage of this legal ambiguity, and in practice, it can be used against dissidents at will."


According to reports, the amended law is likely to have a chilling impact both within the country and beyond. Chinese journalists, academics and executives who frequently engage with foreign counterparts are likely to think twice before doing so, at least without explicit government sanction.

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