China must clarify the full scope of its new national security law
Every nation wants to ensure its people, interests and core values are safe and protected. China's national security law aims to do that, with its sweeping powers covering all parts of society, at home and abroad and even into outer space. There are no shortage of critics, particularly among foreign governments and businesses and rights groups, worried about sensitive information, censorship and freedoms. The leadership has to ease concerns by ensuring that the legislation is enforced evenly, fairly and as transparently as is practicable.
There is no doubt that China, as with other economically important countries, faces a host of threats, as much outside as within. Individuals and groups seek power, control and financial gain; they include Muslim extremists, cyberterrorists and those intent on stealing government and business secrets. To deal with the many real and perceived threats, the law is wide-ranging, covering culture, the economy, politics, ideology, the military, technology, the environment and religion.
A feature is that the military is given authority to protect not only national territorial sovereignty, but Chinese interests everywhere. It is in effect the go-ahead for the expansion of the navy into a blue-water fleet, with a remit to take action where and when necessary. Showing the broadness of the law passed on Wednesday by the National People's Congress, those interests extend to space, the deep sea and the polar ice caps. The wording gives added concern to neighbours and rivals already worried about China's rise and increasing assertiveness.
The legislation effectively bolsters the Communist Party's authority and seems likely to strengthen President Xi Jinping's hold on power. Although no government agency has been given oversight, the National Security Commission that the leader established and heads is well-placed. Two further laws also remain to be approved, one regulating foreign non-governmental groups, the other on counterterrorism. Hong Kong and Macau are not affected; in Hong Kong's case, as Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying pointed out, separate legislation under Article 23 of the Basic Law has to be enacted and should be, although not in the remaining two years of his term.
Vagaries about what constitutes an offence under the new law and what the penalties will be are disconcerting. Citizens, visitors and business people want to know about the scope of the legislation. Without transparency and greater explanation, there will be reticence, reluctance and fear.