China’s spies to get far-reaching powers with few limits in new draft law

Proposed legislation gives a legal foundation to the sweeping powers of Beijing’s intelligence agencies

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 May, 2017, 11:10pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 18 May, 2017, 10:36am

China has released a draft intelligence law aimed at providing a legal foundation for the country’s spy operations, the latest legislative effort by Beijing to fortify national security against perceived threats at home and abroad.

The draft law, published on the website of top legislature the National People’s Congress on Tuesday to solicit public feedback, stipulates that China’s public security, state security and military are in charge of the country’s ­intelligence services. It authorises them to conduct intelligence ­activity “both within and outside national borders” and to investigate foreign and domestic individuals or institutions deemed harmful to national security.

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Since President Xi Jinping took power four and a half years ago, a slew of new laws have been passed to deal with security challenges, including a national security law, an anti-terrorism law in 2015 and a counter-espionage law in 2014.

Xi himself chairs the powerful national security committee he founded in 2013, which oversees issues ranging from cybersecurity to unrest in Xinjiang.

The latest intelligence law is formulated to “strengthen and ensure state intelligence work and safeguard national security and interests”, according to the draft on the NPC’s website.

“The new laws reinforce the centrality and supremacy of the Party in matters of preserving Communist Party rule and to ensure the stability of China’s domestic environment,” said Benjamin Ho, a expert on national security and intelligence at the at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

The draft law did not specify what falls under the scope of “state intelligence work”, but said it should provide intelligence support for protecting national security, and safeguard national interests like “state power, sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity, the well-being of the people and sustainable development of the economy and society”.

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The Ministry of State Security is widely known as the country’s top civilian spy agency.

However, in recent years, the Ministry of Public Security – effectively the national police force – has taken on a more assertive role in domestic intelligence and counter-espionage, according to testimony from a US specialist on China’s intelligence services that was given to a congressional commission last year.

The draft law allows intelligence officials to adopt secret ­investigative measures such as wiretapping, electronic surveillance and clandestine filming. ­Intelligence officials can also enter “restricted access areas”, skip customs and border inspections and seize vehicles owned by individuals or institutions.

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Spy agencies could also establish “cooperative relationships” with individuals and organisations, the draft law said.

But it also warned intelligence officials against overstepping their authority, abusing their power, or leaking state or commercial secrets, saying that these infractions would be punished by law.

The country’s former deputy spy chief, Ma Jian, is facing prosecution for corruption. In a video posted online last month, Ma said he had abused his power to help businessman Guo Wengui in ­exchange for benefits.