HONG KONG—Chinese lawmakers are drafting a new state secrets law that will, if passed, require Internet service providers to release information about anyone who uses their networks to leak sensitive material.
“They want to use the this law to force telecommunications and Internet companies to cooperate with the Chinese authorities in exposing the identities of people leaking state secrets,” said Vincent Brossel of the Paris-based press freedom group, Reporters Without Borders.
The proposed new law will eventually replace the current State Secrets Law, which took effect May 1, 1989.
The law is largely being updated to cater to controls of information online, and will affect netizens, Internet service providers, and cybercafes across the country, which will be required to report anyone found to be leaking a "state secret" online.
“The Chinese government has always put pressure on telecoms and Internet companies to provide the authorities with details of dissidents and journalists,” Brossel said through a Mandarin interpreter.
The amendment was submitted Monday to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature, for a third reading, the final step before it would become law.
Broad definition of ‘state secrets’
The draft defines a state secret as information that would damage China’s security or interests in political, economic, defense, and other areas, if it were disclosed.
U.S.-based Internet analyst Li Hongkuan said the authorities are hoping to enshrine in law existing controls on online information.
“The real meaning is something of an international public relations exercise,” Li said.
“This will stop the mouths of some democratic countries like the United States, because China will be able to refute [their criticisms] by saying that what they are doing is legal.”
He said Beijing has engaged in a steady legislative program in recent years that seems aimed at fending off criticism of its human rights record from overseas activists and politicians.
But Li added: “The people who will really be hurt by these measures on the part of the Chinese Communist Party are not the rights activists, but ordinary people.”
One government Web site this week posted a broad definition of what constitutes a commercial secret—listing information related to strategic plans, mergers, equity trades, stock listings, reserves, production, procurement, management, finances, negotiations, joint venture investments, and technology transfers.
The story has received coverage in state-run media, with the online version of the Communist Party’s People’s Daily (Renminwang) running a story about the debate in which legislators lashed out at vague wording in the draft.
“This draft is much better than the last, but there are still some important problems,” National People’s Congress (NPC) delegate Zhu Yongxin told the drafting committee.
“The problem of a too-broad and too-loose definition of what constitutes a state secret has still not been resolved,” he was quoted by Renminwang as saying.
NPC delegate Xu Zhenchao said the law could limit people’s access to legitimate information.
“When a sensitive issue arises, the people are going to want to understand the situation, but the result is that the relevant departments are refusing them on the grounds that it constitutes a state secret,” Renminwang quoted him as saying.
A third delegate, Gu Shengzu, was quoted as saying that the relationship between the state secrets law and an open and transparent government is “difficult to manage.”
According to Renminwang, Gu warned that if the distinction between what is, and is not, a state secret, is left up to individual departments and companies, they will say some things are secret which are not, and allow some things out which are.
They are also likely to want to keep some information secret that is illegal not to make public, he added.
Sichuan-based artist and online activist Ai Weiwei said the new draft legislation was vague about what a state secret was, and too heavy-handed.
"This isn't war-time, and ordinary people aren't likely to come across secret material," Ai said.
China habitually uses state security and state secrecy charges to imprison people who air unpopular political views online, or who give information to journalists that would otherwise be censored by online filters, blocks, and top-down directives.
Authorities in the troubled northwestern region of Xinjiang sentenced Uyghur Christian pastor Alimujiang Yimiti to a 15-year jail term for allegedly “providing state secrets to overseas organizations” last October.
Sichuan-based rights activist Huang Qi was convicted of “illegally possessing state secrets” by the Wuhou District Court and sentenced to three years in prison in November after he tried to investigate the collapse of school buildings in a devastating 2008 earthquake.
In 2005 a Chinese journalist was sentenced to 10 years in prison for violating “state secrets” laws after authorities obtained information from Yahoo about an e-mail he sent that related to a confidential government document.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Xi Wang and in Cantonese by Bat Zimuk. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.