Editor’s Note: Nicholas Bequelin is Amnesty International’s Regional Director for East Asia. The views expressed here are solely his.
Several activists and government critics have been jailed over the years on groundless national security crimes
Foreign companies, Internet users and service providers, financial institutions will now operate under greater legal uncertainty
Is the Communist Party of China about to lose its grip on power?
One could be forgiven for thinking so in view of the catalog of political, economic and social issues listed as national security threats under the country’s new National Security Law.
From “social contradictions” to food safety, from environmental crisis to foreign religions, from the Internet to outer space, 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.
In part, this is due to the fact that the law overtly conflates maintaining the Party’s monopoly on power and protecting the “people’s democratic dictatorship” with national security.
Whereas Chinese legislation usually tries to give the appearance of leaving control with the formal state institutions – with the Party’s role limited to providing “leadership” – the new National Security Law is explicit in its ambition to protect the absolute power of the Party.
This will hardly be news to the countless activists, government critics and human rights defenders who have been thrown in jail over the years on groundless national security crimes such as “inciting subversion” (the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, 11 years), “separatism” (the Uyghur economist Ilham Tohti, life imprisonment) or “leaking state secrets” (the veteran journalist Gao Yu, seven years).
Since his ascension to power in late 2012, President Xi Jinping has intensified the crackdown on activism and dissent, ramping up the suppression of civil society groups, strengthening Internet censorship and the monitoring of social media, and urging the Party to combat the influence of what it terms “Western ideas” such as rule of law and media freedom.
But this new law reaches far beyond the traditional targets of the Chinese state authoritarian streak.
Foreign companies, Internet users and service providers and financial institutions, are just some of those who will now operate under far greater legal uncertainties, and will face the ever-present risk of running afoul of vaguely phrased provisions on national security.
Consider for example the wording of article 19 in the law, which sets out that “the State maintains the basic economic system and order of the socialist marketplace … safeguarding security in important industries and fields that influence the populace’s economic livelihood … as well as other major economic interests.”
In the absence of an independent judiciary, the government will have a free hand in defining what are “important industries” or “major economic interests” for national security.
By including “seabeds,” Antarctica, and outer space as national security interests, the new law is also bound to make China’s close and distant neighbors more nervous about the country’s long-term intentions.
Ominously, the new law is only one piece of the larger national security architecture.
In addition to the counter espionage law adopted last year, which gives an almost limitless scope to what can be defined as a “state secret,” the government is currently reviewing three other national security related laws: a counter-terrorism law, which in its first draft mandated all Internet companies operating in China to provide backdoor access and encryption keys to the government; a foreign funded NGO law, which would put the police directly in charge of all NGOs; and a foreign investment law, which would institute much broader national security reviews for foreign investors.
In fact the symptoms of the national security stifling effects are already discernible: With the national security apparatus set to wield so much power, the drafters could apparently not agree on who should formally sit at its apex.
Instead of the newly-formed National Security Commission as was expected, the law only refers to an unspecified “central national security leading institution,” leaving the door open to future power struggles behind the scenes.
While Xi has so far been most closely associated with his vigorous anti-corruption campaign, the promotion of this ambitious national security agenda is the centerpiece of a broad political hardening over which he has presided – the very opposite of the Communist Party losing control.
This will make reform – and addressing China’s very real growing pains – more, rather than less difficult.