China’s new spying law goes into effect today (June 28), after it was hastily passed by the legislature.
In a nutshell, the National Intelligence Law gives authorities sweeping powers to monitor and investigate foreign and domestic individuals and institutions. It allows Chinese intelligence agencies to search premises, seize property, and mobilize individuals or organizations to carry out espionage. It also gives intelligence agencies legal ground to carry out their work both in and outside China. Those violating the law will be subject to detention of up to 15 days, and can be charged with a crime.
The law is the first that governs China’s secret police system, which comprises the Ministry of National Security and the Internal Security Bureau of the Ministry of Public Security. The two government organs, known as guoan and guobao respectively, used to mostly just follow existing ministry documents.
The new law is part of a slew of legislation focusing on state security enacted in recent years under president Xi Jinping. China’s top legislature, the National People’s Congress (NPC), passed a national security law in 2014, followed by ones involving or targeting counter-terrorism, counter-espionage, foreign non-profits, and cybersecurity. During the same period, the crackdown on dissidents and civil society has grown harsher. Critics fear even greater surveillance under the new law, but Beijing says it is appropriate for its national security concerns.
The NPC passed the intelligence law on June 27, after only two rounds of discussions—a relatively expedited process rarely used on new laws. State news agency Xinhua subsequently released the full text of the law (link in Chinese). Some issues for concern include:
Article 11: National intelligence work institutions shall lawfully collect and process relevant intelligences on foreign bodies, organizations and individuals engaged in, or inciting or assisting others to engage in, or domestic bodies, organizations and individuals who collude with foreign bodies, organizations or individuals to engage in harm to the national security and interests of the People’s Republic of China, in order to provide intelligence as a reference and basis and reference for preventing, curbing and punishing the above acts.
Article 12: National intelligence work institutions may, according to relevant state regulations, establish cooperative relationships with relevant individuals and organizations, and commission them to carry out related work.
Article 14: National intelligence work institutions, when carrying out intelligence work according to laws, may ask relevant institutions, organizations and citizens to provide necessary support, assistance and cooperation.
The language of the law seems to have been slightly toned down compared to a draft released in May for public consultation. For example, Article 11 of the draft states that foreign individuals or groups carrying out acts in China aimed at endangering its national security “must be held accountable to law.” But the line has since been deleted. The law also adds new provisions regarding compensation to those who injure or die working with intelligence agencies, confidentiality for whistleblowers, and prohibitions on posing as intel staffers to scam people for money.
The law, which contains only 32 articles, remains general and board compared to its Western equivalents. China also lacks applicable laws for privacy and personal data protections. It is unclear how much legal oversight Chinese intelligence agencies are subject to.
In May, the New York Times reported that the Chinese government killed or imprisoned over a dozen CIA informants in China between 2010 and 2012, citing current and former American officials. China’s top state newspaper, the People’s Daily, derided the story as a “spy novel.”