A revised law dramatically expanding China’s definition of espionage has come into force, giving Beijing even more power to punish what it deems threats to national security.
The US government, analysts and lawyers say that the revisions to Beijing’s anti-espionage law are vague and will give authorities more leeway in implementing already opaque national security legislation.
The US National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) said the law, which came into effect on Saturday, gives Beijing “expanded legal grounds for accessing and controlling data held by US firms in China”.
The NCSC said the new law is ambiguous on what fits its definition of national security secrets, but believes Beijing’s view could include information that companies use as a normal part of their business.
US companies and individuals could “face penalties for traditional business activities” if Chinese authorities label them espionage or say they are assisting foreign sanctions on China, the NCSC said in an advisory notice.
Originally released for public comment in December 2022, the revisions were formally approved by China’s top legislative body in April.
Chinese law already carries harsh punishments for those involved in alleged espionage, from life in prison to execution in extreme cases.
In May, a 78-year-old US citizen was sentenced to life in prison on spying charges.
Under the revised law, “relying on espionage organizations and their agents” as well as the unauthorized obtaining of “documents, data, materials, and items related to national security and interests” can constitute a spying attack.
China’s embassy in Washington said Beijing had the right to safeguard national security through domestic legislation.
“China will continue to promote high-level opening-up and provide a more law-based and international business environment for companies from all countries, including the United States,” embassy spokesperson Liu Pengyu said.
But experts have warned that the changes could sweep up those with even tenuous links to organizations accused of spying.
Foreign businesses already face a tense environment in China, after raids on and questioning of staff at due diligence company Mintz Group and consulting firm Bain and Company this year.
The new law embodies a “whole-of-society approach to dealing with anything that is a risk to this broad definition of national security”, Jeremy Daum, senior research fellow at Yale’s Paul Tsai China Center, told Agence France-Presse.
Daum said the law builds on a broader trend of tightening control since 2014, after President Xi Jinping took power.
But its vague definition of espionage and national security gives authorities a wider berth, he added, and will probably have a “chilling effect on Chinese citizens who have contact with foreigners and foreign organizations”.
The new revisions have ruffled feathers among the business community, with companies fearing even tighter scrutiny.
The changes “have raised legitimate concerns about implementing certain routine business activities, which now risk being considered espionage”, Craig Allen, president of the US-China Business Council, wrote in a recent blog.
“Confidence in China’s market will suffer further if the law is applied frequently and without a clear, narrow and direct link to activities universally recognized as espionage,” wrote Allen.
Diplomatic officials from several countries have also sounded alarm bells before the legal changes, urging citizens in China to become vigilantes.
The US state department said the law will “greatly expand the scope of what [Beijing] considers espionage activities”.
Deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel said Washington would “continue to speak out for human rights and rule of law issues and promote accountability for [China’s] repressive activities, which of course would be one”.