State Secrets Law Revised Amidst Ongoing National Security Campaign

Revisions to China’s “state secrets” law and a propaganda campaign designed to warn about the dangers of foreign espionage are the latest signs of the Party-state’s increasing emphasis on national security. The most contentious revision is a new provision on “work secrets,” which are distinct from “state secrets” but otherwise hazily defined, potentially allowing for the law to be abused at a time when foreign businesses in China are struggling with raids on corporate offices, exit bans on executives, and the detention of Chinese employees. At The New York Times, Daisuke Wakabayashi, Keith Bradsher and Claire Fu reported on the updated law

The amendments to the state secrets law, which were passed by China’s top legislative body on Tuesday and go into effect in May, include a new legal concept called “work secrets.” It is defined as information that is not an official state secret, but “will cause certain adverse effects if leaked,” according to the law’s text.

[…] “The scope of issues deemed ‘sensitive’ seems to be constantly expanding, which makes it more difficult for companies to access information necessary for making investment decisions related to their China operations,” [Jens Eskelund, the president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China]  said in a written statement.

[…] China’s ruling Communist Party determined the law needed updating because of advances in science and technology that created “new problems and challenges” in maintaining confidentiality, an official at the National Administration of State Secrets Protection told state media. [Source]

In recent months, the Chinese state has exercised strict control over information about the state of the national economy. In the days before the National People’s Congress, censors took down an essay from Tsinghua professor Sun Liping on the steps necessary to revive the economy. The passage of the new provision on “work secrets” seems to reflect the “securitization” of economic information. Xia Ming, a professor of political science at the City University of New York, told Radio Free Asia that the revised law might complicate foreign companies’ efforts to do market research in China: “They think people could interpret specific and minor fluctuations in the data to create information that is unfavorable to their political system and regime [stability….] So everything is confidential.” Ryan Mitchell, a professor of law at Hong Kong University, told Reuters that the revised law is seemingly “intended to avoid leaking of information regarding the organizational structure and decision-making hierarchy of state institutions.” 

At China Law Translate, Jeremy Daum, a senior research scholar at Yale Law School, wrote on the potential “overzealous identification of ‘work secrets’” that may become a negative externality of the law

Article 64 contains what is likely the most contentious item, as it increased protections beyond formally classified information. It addresses “work secrets”, which refers to information produced or collected by departments in the performance of their duties, the leaking of which would cause an adverse impact. The earlier draft had required that the leak’s impact would obstruct the work of the departments involved or adversely impact national security and state interests, but the final version seems even broader.

Work secrets and internal documents aren’t a new issue, but it is unfortunate to see them further enshrined in law. Calling for the protection of these documents, the nature of which will vary extensively from department to department, may lead to overzealous identification of ‘work secrets’, harming both the public’s right to know and exposing workers to increased risk.

[…] As mentioned above, work secrets […] are not a new concept. The Civil Servants Law and Counter-espionage Law, for example, both mention the need to protect work secrets.

They are generally understood to include the non-classified information of a government organ that is not suitable for public release and may impact the normal performance of duties or internal management of the organ. (this is similar to the definition provided in article four of the draft version of the Secrets Law) [Source]

At The Wall Street Journal, Austin Ramzy interviewed Thomas Kellogg, an expert on the Chinese legal system, about the historical context and potential ramifications of the revision

“This revision is the latest in a series of legal moves to strengthen the national-security state, which has been a key element of Xi Jinping’s approach to governance since taking power in 2012,” said Thomas Kellogg, the executive director of the Georgetown Center for Asian Law. 

“We’re now at more than 20 state-security laws that have either been passed or revised in recent years—this is the latest in that stream, and probably won’t be the last,” he said.

[…] “The possession of any nonpublic information is getting ever more risky, and Chinese officials have shown less hesitation in targeting foreign businesses and in harassing journalists in recent years, and this revised law gives them another tool to do that,” said Kellogg. [Source]

The law will be accompanied by a propaganda campaign to inform Chinese citizens of their national security obligations, according to Li Zhaozong, the head of China’s National Administration of State Secrets Protection. Li said the campaign will be geared towards “creating a good atmosphere for secrecy work in the whole society.” China’s national security agencies have been increasingly visible to the public, particularly since the Ministry of State Security (MSS) began publishing to WeChat last August

In January of this year, the MSS debuted a new cartoon series on WeChat lionizing the work of chasing down foreign spies. The Chinese government has often used cartoons to propagandize national security campaigns: past examples include comics about the ostensible dangers posed by foreign NGOs and the national security ramifications of dating foreign hunks. The latest installment of the comic series, published in late February, sees an MSS agent go undercover at a consulting firm in pursuit of “Jason,” a fictional foreign spy the MSS has been chasing for years. The comic’s inclusion of a consulting firm as a potential national security risk is in line with the state’s recent scrutiny of international consultancies, a number of which were raided over purported national security concerns in 2023. In January 2024, the MSS announced the arrest of the head of a consultancy on charges of working for M16, Britain’s spy agency. International experts expressed skepticism about the veracity of the charges. Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London, told The New York Times that consultants appear to be convenient targets, thus making the case less convincing: “If the Chinese really have a case, they really have to come up with a bit more either in public or in private with the Brits.”


Subscribe to CDT


Browsers Unbounded by Lantern

Now, you can combat internet censorship in a new way: by toggling the switch below while browsing China Digital Times, you can provide a secure "bridge" for people who want to freely access information. This open-source project is powered by Lantern, know more about this project.

Google Ads 1

Giving Assistant

Google Ads 2

Anti-censorship Tools

Life Without Walls

Click on the image to download Firefly for circumvention

Open popup

Welcome back!

CDT is a non-profit media site, and we need your support. Your contribution will help us provide more translations, breaking news, and other content you love.