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China drafts law on broad surveillance powers

The Chinese government has released the first draft of a new intelligence law aimed at formalising its sweeping security powers, with broad authority to engage in surveillance at home and abroad.

The document would create a legal framework for the country’s extensive domestic and foreign intelligence work, which already includes widespread monitoring of communications and broad authority to detain anyone suspected of harming national security.

surveillance beijing

The Chinese national flag flies behind security cameras on Tiananmen Square on June 4, 2012. FIle photo: Ed Jones/AFP.

It is part of a raft of legislative measures drafted by China in recent years that grant the government formal authority to crack down on perceived threats to domestic stability, including laws on national security, espionage and cybersecurity.

Like those documents, the National Intelligence Law’s current draft is short on specifics: just six pages filled with ambiguously-worded phrases, according to a copy of the text posted on the website of the National People’s Congress Tuesday.

The text, which was made available for public comment seemingly without a formal announcement, had already received 236 responses by Thursday evening.

Among its 28 provisions, the draft gives the government wide authority to collect intelligence both at home and abroad and demand cooperation from companies and individuals in investigating national security concerns.

It would also allow the use of “technological reconnaissance measures”, a term that refers to hacking and wire-tapping among other surveillance methods.

Xi Jinping

Xi Jinping. Photo: New China TV screenshot, via YouTube.

Articles 10 and 11 specifically address intelligence operations with respect to “foreign bodies, organisations and individuals,” saying that those “engaging in acts harming the national security and interests… must be punished”.

Since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012, the county has become increasingly leery of foreign influence, with government officials regularly accusing so-called “foreign black hands” — everyone from journalists and human rights campaigners to textbook publishers and university professors — of attempting to subvert the country’s government.

Beijing has sought to raise public awareness of these supposed threats to national security, with campaigns warning against the dangers of dating foreign spies and encouraging tipsters to turn in “agents” for cash rewards.

“Under the backdrop of globalisation, the covert struggles between different countries and regions have become more complex, so Chinese citizens need to be educated to build and enhance their sense of intelligence,” Yang Jianying, a professor at China’s University of International Relations, told the state-run newspaper the Global Times.

In addition to expanding the government’s authorities, the draft law also seeks to place some curbs on Beijing’s power.

The measures, if implemented, would require the government to pay compensation for damages incurred during the course of reconnaissance or investigations.

It also makes provisions for filing complaints against intelligence organisations, saying that “any individual or organisation” may report abuses of power and other “unlawful acts to higher-level authorities”.

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China drafts law on broad surveillance powers