China updated its anti-espionage law earlier this year amid an intensifying rivalry with the United States and growing distrust of the Western-led international order.
The legislation broadens the scope beyond what it originally sought to prohibit – leaks of state secrets and intelligence – to include any “documents, data, materials, or items related to national security and interests.”
Also, the law empowers authorities with new surveillance powers. These include the ability to access people’s emails or social media accounts on electronic devices.
Beijing is clearly using the new catch-all provision to cast a wider net to identify “spies”. It is targeting not only Westerners working in China but also Chinese nationals who work for foreign companies and organizations or interact with foreigners in any way.
The law is more than just theoretical – it has teeth. Last month, a new national campaign was launched with rewards of up to 500,000 yuan or US$68,496 for anyone reporting suspicious individuals or suspected espionage activities.
Red banners have started appearing on Chinese streets, proclaiming:
Implement the new anti-espionage law, mobilise collective efforts to safeguard national security.
Posters with a hotline number for reporting suspicious individuals can now be found on public transport, as well. These visible signs serve as reminders that spies could be anywhere, potentially feeding sensitive information to foreign entities that pose threats to China.
So far, the new law has sent a chill through multinational corporations, Chinese companies, and other organizations.
State-owned firms or those affiliated with the government are distancing themselves from multinationals offering legal, investment and consultancy services, fearful of being associated with foreign entities.
Multinationals themselves were once welcomed with open arms to help accelerate China’s economic and technological development. Now, they are entangled in a complex web of regulations governing the cross-border transfer of data and other information. Many are considering decoupling their data and IT systems from the world’s second-largest economy.
From an individual standpoint, anyone with foreign affiliations feels as if they are on a kind of community “watch list.”
Some Chinese firms indicate in recruitment drives for new employees they will not consider applicants who have returned from certain overseas regions. The perception is they may have been exposed to foreign forces who use money, friendship, or even romance to coerce them into becoming an undercover agent or informant.
An invisible net has been cast over every stratum of Chinese society.
Many Chinese will no doubt become more hesitant in their interactions, cautious in their communication, and skeptical in their collaborations. This will only further encourage people to retreat into silence or resort to coded language in conversations and social media.
And those perceived as having divergent political or ideological views will especially be under scrutiny. This includes businesspeople, entrepreneurs, and those working in non-government sectors who openly voice political or ideological values that go against the Communist Party.
The expansive nature of the law evokes memories of the Cultural Revolution, an era in which little trust existed in society and even among family members.
A divide is emerging today between those in governmental circles and everyone else.
Having a foreign diploma or other affiliation was once seen as a positive. Now, however, it could be seen as a liability or even a crime.
The first iteration of the anti-espionage law was enacted in 2015 and was aimed at bolstering national security and generally protecting against espionage activities detrimental to the country’s interests.
The updated legislation comes in a changed world. The rivalry between the US and China has escalated in trade, technology, defense and influence over global institutions. Both nations are actively engaging in intelligence operations to understand intentions and vulnerabilities.
Because the law is so expansive and ambiguous, however, the implementation and enforcement could be difficult. And it could diverge significantly from the initial objectives of lawmakers.
When legislation is ambiguous, it leaves room for interpretation and potential exploitation.
The lack of clarity with the revised anti-espionage law could give rise to witch hunts, leaving people vulnerable to accusations that lack substantial evidence. The ripple effect could extend beyond China’s borders, affecting academic exchanges, technological cooperation, and diplomatic relations.
If collaboration with the outside world becomes secondary to perceived threats, it could also deter foreign investment and domestic private enterprises in China, stifling economic growth.
At a time when the Chinese economy is grappling with domestic challenges and an increasingly hostile global environment, this could hasten the “decoupling” from China that many in the West are advocating for.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.