State secrets law in need of clarification

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 May, 2014, 4:32am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 May, 2014, 8:42am

In many other places veteran journalist Gao Yu would have been acclaimed for her role in breaking a story of public interest that officials did not want known. Instead she has appeared on state television confessing that she had breached the law and endangered national interests, after being placed in criminal detention for allegedly leaking a confidential Communist Party document. Gao, 70, appears merely to have been doing her job as a journalist in unearthing information of legitimate public concern. But hers has become the highest-profile case for some time under a broadly defined state secrets law that particularly targets journalists.

State media said she obtained an unspecified secret central party document and supplied it to an overseas website, after which it was circulated widely on other websites. Citing the timing of the leak last August, observers have linked it to reports of a confidential circular that was seen by liberals as a setback to hopes for democratic reform under the leadership of President Xi Jinping . The circular ordered cadres to tackle seven subversive influences on society, including "Western constitutional democracy" and "universal values" such as human rights and free speech. Ironically, in recent weeks, mainland state media have effectively disclosed the content of the party document through commentaries warning against the influence of foreign values.

Ahead of the 25th anniversary of the June 4 crackdown on the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement, the authorities appear to be sending a warning about its sensitivity with the detention of Gao and other leading liberal figures and activists.

Gao has fallen foul of a secrets law that can give rise to bizarre interpretations. State secrets, determined arbitrarily by the state security ministry, are defined as matters in the areas of politics, economy and national defence that involve national security and interests and which could harm either if exposed. One result, for example, is that there could be a fine line between disclosure of information relevant to investors - such as a big government contract - and leaking a state secret.

Gao, who had already been jailed for a total of seven years for her political writing, probably faces a harsh sentence. Because of her age and international pressure she may still receive leniency. But this affair still sends the wrong message altogether. A revision of a catch-all state secrets law to bring more clarity and transparency would send a better one more in keeping with the emergence of a modern, confident China.