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What’s in the New Amendments to China’s State Secrets Law?

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China Power | Politics | East Asia

What’s in the New Amendments to China’s State Secrets Law?

China’s legislature is considering the first changes to the law since 2010.

What’s in the New Amendments to China’s State Secrets Law?
Credit: Depositphotos

At the sixth session of the Standing Committee of China’s top legislature, the National People’s Congress, last month, a draft amendment to the State Secrets Law was submitted for review and deliberation. Given the pervasive securitization of information in China today, the submission is considered timely in expanding the purview of “secrecy work” — that is, the task of protecting state secrets — in China.

The draft amendment, the first changes submitted for review since the State Secrets Law was amended in 2010, proposes to expand the law from 53 articles to 62 articles. The amendments include provisions for new mechanisms of accountability, new goals to fulfill through the conduct of secrecy work, and new ways to expand awareness of such work.

To begin with, the very first article of the amended draft pays lip service to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s flagship political objective, the dream of realizing the “Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation,” and lists it as one of the reasons for the enactment and amendment of the State Secrets Law. Previously, the 2010 draft only mentioned the aims of guarding state secrets, ensuring national security, and guaranteeing the smooth progress of reform, opening up, and “socialist construction.” 

Now, in addition to discussing the Great Rejuvenation, the amendment proposes moving toward “socialist modernization construction” – rather than just “socialist construction” – through secrecy work. The construction of socialist modernization is an important agenda item for Xi, since he announced a two-step plan to make China a “great modern socialist country” by 2035 at the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 2017. Naturally, under his leadership, the party now aims to deploy secrecy work to guard knowledge and know-how that can further the cause of socialist modernization. 

Similarly, article 4 of the draft amendment also references the significance of adhering to the “overall national security concept,” another one of Xi’s articulations from 2012, in carrying out secrecy work.

The amended draft also aims to achieve a twofold goal of concentrating power in the hands of the CCP, while making it much less accountable for guarding state secrets. The new article 3, as proposed in the draft amendment, says that adherence to the leadership of the CCP in protecting state secrets is now a must. That criteria is not in the 2010 text of the law. In fact, there is no mention of a role for the CCP in the current law, but only of the State Council and the “central government.” 

Similarly, article 4 of the amendment text discusses adherence to the party’s leadership in secrecy, legal governance, and “the integration of technology and management, and innovative development,” canonizing the CCP’s dominant role over secrecy work in general and that of Xi in particular. The only direct implementation role of the party emerges from the responsibility bestowed upon the Central Military Commission for dictating guidelines of secrecy work for the People’s Liberation Army (article 60).

At the same time, other aspects of accountability discussed in the amended draft, such as the implementation of a “secrecy work responsibility system” by state organs and units dedicated to guarding state secrets (as identified in article 8), indicate that the CCP is shunting the legwork to government agencies and local authorities. The broad ambit of responsibilities under this system include designating specific personnel to be responsible for secrecy work, improving secrecy management systems, enhancing secrecy protection measures, conducting secrecy propaganda and education, and strengthening secrecy inspections. Any deficiencies in the fulfillment of such responsibilities will trigger rebuke for government agencies from the party. 

At the same time, as per the amended article 11, local authorities are also required to allot a separate budget for undertaking these responsibilities, at a time when provincial government finances are already extremely strained. Clearly, if promulgated, the amended State Secrets Law could become the worst of all worlds for state agencies, especially at the local level.

Amendments introduced vis-a-vis secrecy propaganda and education also hint at some of the paranoia ailing the party-state. Even though articles 31 and 36 of the present draft of the law make passing mention of awareness and education for personnel involved in secrecy work, the amended draft, in its ninth article, provides for the integration of secrecy work propaganda and awareness into the larger national education and cadre-training systems. The endeavor to launch a nationwide campaign to create awareness among the masses about secrecy work is part of a larger wave of educational initiatives that aim to inculcate a sense of responsibility for national security in average Chinese people. 

If passed, the amended law will see both an increased effort by Chinese state media to spread propaganda pertaining to guarding state secrets, as well as heightened pressure on local governments to deliver on training and education programs that lay specific emphasis on secrecy work.

The paranoia also manifests in guarding critical information pertaining to economic and technological developments, which have become a subject of increased securitization and contestation in the context of deteriorating China-U.S. relations. Article 10 of the draft amendment encourages confidentiality in scientific and technological research and application, such as in core technologies, while arguing for making innovative technological strides in secrecy work itself. 

This may indicate use of critical tech like artificial intelligence in patrolling the safeguarding of secrets, as is evident from its use case in Xinjiang. The interpretational ambit of what constitutes secrecy work technology is huge, and can both hinder domestic and foreign collaborations on science and innovation, as well as further deployment of technologies for social suppression in the name of guarding state secrets. 

It is likely that the amended State Secrets Law, the draft for which is currently open for public comments, will be passed after two to three reviews by the NPC Standing Committee. Its revised scope will herald a renewed focus on internal repression, expand policy pressures on local authorities, and create new challenges for international partnerships in science and technology.