China is preparing to make significant changes to its state secrets law, in a move that includes prohibiting state employees with access to state secrets from traveling abroad without prior approval. The proposed amendments, the first in a decade, are expected to be passed after a second reading. The revision comes amid an ongoing intelligence battle between Beijing and the United States and its allies.
The amendments to the ‘Law on Guarding State Secrets’ would not only apply to current state employees but also to former staff and retirees. However, there is currently no clear definition of who is considered an employee, leading to calls for more clarity from citizens and international business groups. The European Union Chamber of Commerce in China highlighted the importance of clarity on what constitutes a state secret for businesses to understand China’s boundaries related to national security.
Some individuals, such as Beijing-based criminal lawyer He Zhiwei, expressed concerns that the lack of clarity might lead to arbitrary classification of scenarios as state secrets, potentially violating people’s rights. According to China’s official news agency, the country had 7.16 million civil servants in 2016, but the total number of people employed by the state, including state-owned enterprises and public institutions, is estimated to be around 31 million.
Under the proposed changes, the National Administration of State Secret Protection will receive enhanced powers to investigate cases linked to state secrets. This includes the authority to review all files, question personnel, and confiscate devices and files connected to state secrets. Additionally, public education on safeguarding state secrets will become part of the national system, and all levels of government will be required to allocate funds in their annual budgets for information confidentiality.
Despite concerns raised, the Ministry of State Security dismissed criticisms of the revisions and emphasized that China’s anti-spying law protects suspects’ human rights. The ministry stated that the law clearly outlines the process for investigating state security cases.
These changes in China’s state secrets law come at a time of escalating tensions between the United States and China in the realm of espionage and intelligence gathering. Both countries are actively involved in developing their artificial intelligence capabilities, which they view as crucial for enhancing their respective spy agencies.
President Xi Jinping has previously emphasized that China faces more complex security concerns and urged officials to be prepared for worst-case scenarios. Chen Yixin, the State Security Minister, has also called for stronger national security measures and a crackdown on the theft of state secrets, citing risks arising from an increasingly unpredictable global environment.