A wave of concern has rippled through the international community as China’s revised anti-espionage law came into effect, expanding the definition of espionage and granting authorities even greater power to punish perceived threats to national security. This move has raised alarm bells among US government officials, analysts, and lawyers who argue that the vague language of the legislation could provide authorities with increased discretion in implementing the already opaque national security laws.
The inherent danger of laws that are deliberately vague and opaque lies in the authorities’ ability to interpret and manipulate them at their discretion, often serving political or corrupt purposes. While the U.S. Congress engages in vigorous debates to prevent the potential misuse of laws by thoroughly examining their details, China adopts an opposite approach that raises concerns. By maintaining ambiguity, Chinese authorities retain the flexibility to bend the law as per their agenda, undermining transparency, accountability, and the rule of law
The US National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) has expressed apprehension about the law, stating that it grants Beijing “expanded legal grounds for accessing and controlling data held by US firms in China.” While the law remains ambiguous about what exactly falls under its definition of national security secrets, the NCSC believes that Beijing’s interpretation could encompass information that companies commonly use as part of their regular business operations. This has led to concerns that US companies and individuals engaging in “traditional business activities” may face penalties if they are labeled as engaging in espionage or accused of assisting foreign sanctions against China.
The revisions to the law were formally approved by China’s top legislative body in April, following their release for public comment in December 2022. Chinese law already imposed severe punishments, ranging from life imprisonment to execution in extreme cases, for those involved in alleged espionage. However, the revised law expands the scope of what constitutes a spying offense, including “relying on espionage organizations and their agents” and the unauthorized acquisition of “documents, data, materials, and items related to national security and interests.”
While the Chinese embassy in Washington maintains that Beijing has the right to safeguard national security through domestic legislation, experts have warned that the new law could ensnare individuals and businesses with even tenuous connections to organizations accused of spying. Foreign businesses operating in China already face a tense environment, exemplified by recent raids and questioning of staff at companies such as Mintz Group and Bain and Company.
The broad definition of espionage and national security in the revised law reflects a trend of tightening control in China since President Xi Jinping assumed power in 2014. According to Jeremy Daum, a senior research fellow at Yale’s Paul Tsai China Center, the law gives authorities a wider berth due to its vague language and is likely to have a chilling effect on Chinese citizens who have contact with foreigners and foreign organizations.
The revisions to the law have sparked anxiety among the business community, with companies expressing fears of even greater scrutiny. Craig Allen, president of the US-China Business Council, highlighted these concerns in a recent blog, emphasizing that the changes raise legitimate questions about engaging in routine business activities that now risk being classified as espionage. Allen stressed the importance of maintaining confidence in China’s market and called for the law to be applied judiciously, with a clear and direct link to universally recognized espionage activities.
Diplomatic officials from various countries have also raised alarm about the legal changes and urged their citizens in China to remain vigilant. The US State Department has warned that the law significantly expands the scope of activities considered espionage by Beijing. Deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel emphasized that the United States will continue to speak out on human rights and rule of law issues, seeking accountability for China’s repressive activities, which include the implementation of this law.
The implementation of China’s revised anti-espionage law has sparked concerns not only among the business community but also among foreign correspondents reporting from within the country. The law’s vague language and broad scope make news gathering more challenging for journalists, exacerbating existing difficulties faced by foreign media operating in China. The revisions expand the definition of espionage to include accessing any information related to national security, raising concerns among journalists about potential violations of the law during their reporting activities.
The lack of transparency and ambiguity in China’s revised anti-espionage law has deepened concerns regarding the country’s commitment to protecting human rights, freedom of expression, and the rule of law. Critics argue that the broad language and expansive powers granted to authorities under the law could be used to stifle dissent, target foreign businesses, and further restrict the activities of journalists and civil society organizations. As the international community grapples with the implications of China’s new law, there is a pressing need for continued scrutiny and advocacy to ensure that fundamental rights and principles are upheld in an increasingly complex global landscape.