China's new national security law, enacted last week by the National People's Congress, the country's parliament, is worrying on several levels, both because of what it says and because of what is left ambiguous.
To soothe local worries, Hong Kong's Secretary for Justice, Rimsky Yuen, described the new law as little more than a "declaration of principles" that is "a blueprint for overall national security." Similarly, one of his predecessors, Elsie Leung, called it "framework legislation."
Indeed, the law is striking for its lack of specificity. But it is chilling in its sweep, potentially including every sphere of activity, foreign as well as domestic, within the realm of national security. It provides for a national security review mechanism that would cover all activities "that impact or might impact national security," from foreign investment to Internet information technology.
The law identifies the interests of the Communist Party with those of the Chinese state. The first article asserts that the law is "to defend the people's democratic dictatorship and the system of socialism with Chinese characteristics" before saying that it is also meant "to protect the fundamental interests of the people."
"Socialism with Chinese characteristics" is the official ideology of the Communist Party. Thus, defending the party's monopoly on power is defined as maintaining national security. That is to say, anyone supporting democracy is ipso facto guilty of undermining national security.
Since 2009, China's diplomats have informed the world that the country's core interests were headed by "upholding our basic system," that is, maintaining the existence of the party-state. This was followed by sovereignty and territorial integrity and, lastly, economic and social development.
The new security law is consistent with this formulation. But such an approach can easily provide a pretext for a crackdown on domestic dissent as well as on "foreign interference."
The new law warns "individuals and organizations" not to endanger national security or to provide any support or assistance to individuals or organizations endangering national security. By defining national security in broad and vague terms, the law is likely to cause unease to citizens and put psychological pressure on them to ask themselves if they should engage in social, cultural or other activities that may be even remotely interpreted as being illegal.
One example is religion. While paying lip service to upholding the principle of freedom of religion, the law threatens punishment of those who "conduct illegal and criminal activities" in the name of religion.
The law also seems to endow itself with extraterritorial jurisdiction. It defines China's national interests as including the "peaceful exploration and use of outer space" as well as of international seabed areas and of both the Arctic and Antarctic polar regions; hence, protecting such interests are now part of upholding national security.
With global warming, interest in the Arctic and the riches of its seabed is increasing. China does not border the Arctic but calls itself a near-Arctic state, with rights and interests in the seabed.
The new law declares that China will take "necessary measures in accordance with law" to protect the security and the legitimate rights and interests of overseas Chinese citizens, organizations and institutions and also ensure that the country's overseas interests "are not threatened or encroached upon."
With China now involved in trade and diplomacy in every corner of the world, Chinese business people and tourists are active in virtually all countries, big or small. Last year, more than 100 million Chinese travelled abroad.
The significance of the security law lies not only in its 84 articles but also in the context of other legislation that is being considered.
Last year, China adopted a counterespionage law. Currently, it is considering a counterterrorism law, a foreign-financed NGO law as well as a foreign investment law. All have strong political implications and can become tools of a repressive government. The NGO law would require all non-government organizations to register with the police. The terrorism law, in draft form, requires foreign Internet companies to provide encryption keys to the Chinese government.
Interestingly, in view of disclosures by former U.S. government contractor Edward Snowden of illegal U.S. surveillance activities, one article in the new Chinese law stipulates that citizens have the right to file "accusations or reports regarding unlawful activity of state organs and their personnel," seemingly justifying whistle-blowers.
However, the very next article says that, if necessary, "special measures" may be taken to "restrict the rights and freedoms of citizens."
Meanwhile, the Hong Kong government has announced that the security law will not apply in the former British colony. However, some still fear arrest if they travel to the mainland.