Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

In this 2017 photo, Dong Yuyu stands at the gates of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass in May 2017. The veteran Chinese journalist who worked at a ruling Communist Party-affiliated newspaper faces espionage charges after he was detained while meeting with a Japanese diplomat in a restaurant, his family said Monday.The Associated Press

Lawmakers in Beijing have approved a wide-ranging update to China’s anti-espionage law, expanding the definition of spying and banning the transfer of information concerning national security.

The move comes amid a renewed crackdown on journalists in China and growing pressure on foreign businesses – and as Beijing’s ally Moscow prosecutes an American citizen and Wall Street Journal reporter for spying, charges he and his employer vociferously deny.

According to Article 2 of the new Chinese law, “counterespionage efforts are to uphold the centralized and unified leadership of the Party,” should adhere to a “holistic view of national security” and address “both symptoms and root causes.”

The legislation marks the first time the anti-espionage law has been updated since 2014. Spying charges have long been used to persecute journalists critical of the government and to prosecute foreign citizens, often on dubious grounds.

This week, the family of Chinese journalist Dong Yuyu revealed that he has been imprisoned since February of last year, after meeting with a Japanese diplomat who was also detained and interrogated before being released. Mr. Dong’s family had kept the prosecution secret but were recently told he was being charged with espionage and could face decades in prison.

In a statement, the family said they hoped “investigators could understand that his foreign ties were not suspicious but a normal part of his job and a normal interaction between peoples in most parts of the world.”

Dozens of prominent journalists and academics have signed a petition calling for Mr. Dong’s release, saying he had been engaged in the type of “people-to-people diplomacy” that is “essential if China and the rest of the world are to have productive, open, and stable relations.”

The changes to the espionage law could make such exchanges even more fraught and may hasten efforts under way by many foreign companies to decouple from China. All “documents, data, materials, and items related to national security and interests” are now classified as akin to state secrets, the law now says – without defining what it means by “national security.” Consequently, people could be prosecuted for discussing or sharing information on China’s economy and political system.

In 2015, veteran Chinese journalist Gao Yu was sentenced to seven years in prison for leaking state secrets after she shared a copy of “Document No. 9″ with contacts overseas. The communiqué, which was circulated soon after President Xi Jinping took power and had been widely discussed in official pronouncements before Ms. Gao shared it, called for a crackdown on “Western values,” including press freedom and judicial independence.

In a similar case, Australian Cheng Lei, who previously worked for Chinese state broadcaster CGTN, is currently on trial for illegally supplying state secrets overseas. The specifics of her alleged offence have been kept under wraps, but around the time of her arrest, Beijing tried to detain two Australian journalists working for foreign media. They were eventually questioned by state security agents in the Australian embassy and left China soon after.

In one of the highest-profile espionage cases of recent years, China detained Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor after the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou at Vancouver airport at the request of the United States. The two men were charged with spying after more than 500 days in detention and found guilty in closed-door trials in 2021. They were released in September of that year when U.S. prosecutors reached a deal with Ms. Meng, allowing her to return to China.

The nakedly political nature of their prosecution alarmed many foreigners in China, who had previously felt safe despite an increasingly repressive atmosphere under Mr. Xi. For many, the “two Michaels” case raised fears that a spat between their government and Beijing could put them at risk.

Japanese nationals know this only too well. After an employee of a pharmaceutical company in Beijing was arrested for spying last month, Japanese media reported that at least 17 of the country’s citizens have been detained in China on espionage and other charges since 2015 amid worsening relations between Beijing and Tokyo.

This week, Chinese police also raided the Shanghai offices of U.S. consultancy Bain & Company and questioned staff. The move came just weeks after the Beijing office of Mintz Group, a corporate due diligence firm, was also closed by police and saw five staff detained. The reason for the raids have not been explained.

“Our business community is spooked, and our members are asking, ‘Who’s next?’” Michael Hart, the president of the American Chamber of Commerce in China, told CNN. “Irrespective of the government’s intention, that’s the message being received.”

With a file from Reuters

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe