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China Passes Sweeping Anti-Terrorism Law

On December 27, China’s National People’s Congress passed the nation’s first anti-terrorism law. Authorities began calling for counterterror legislation last May as a controversial nationwide “war on terror” was launched in response to increased incidents of violence. Previous drafts of the law, which had failed to pass the NPC earlier this year, raised criticism for containing an overly broad definition of terrorism, associated data disclosure requirements, and the potential to erode human rights; ahead of the draft law’s final reading, these concerns echoed. The New York Times’ Chris Buckley reports:

In the end, the approved law published by state media dropped demands in the draft version that would have required Internet companies and other technology suppliers to hand over codes and other sensitive data for official vetting before they went into use.

But the law still requires that companies hand over technical information and help with decryption when the police or state security agents demand it for investigating or preventing terrorist cases.

[…] Human rights groups have warned that the law will give even more intrusive powers to the Chinese government, which already has broad, virtually unchecked authority to monitor and detain citizens and to demand information from companies and Internet services.

“While the Chinese authorities do have a legitimate duty in safeguarding their citizens from violent attacks, passing this law will have some negative repercussions for human rights,” said William Nee, a researcher on China for Amnesty International who is based in Hong Kong, via email.

“Essentially, this law could give the authorities even more tools in censoring unwelcome information and crafting their own narrative in how the ‘war on terror’ is being waged,” Mr. Nee said. [Source]

While the final law did remove language most concerning to foreign diplomats and tech firms  giving Beijing “backdoor” access to tech products, demands likely to trouble both foreign tech companies and free speech advocates remain. At The Washington Post, Emily Rauhala reports:

The final version of the law seems to step back those demands but still stipulates that companies must release “technical interfaces” and assist with decryption should security agencies deem it necessary to avert or investigate a terrorist attack — language unlikely to appease businesses.

[…] Joerg Wuttke, president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, said his group “recognizes the positive developments in terms of removing the language on encryption review and server/data localization in the final draft” but said they remain concerned about intellectual property rights and censorship.

Chinese officials have cast the new rules as necessary and in line with what other countries, including the United States, are doing.

[…] “This law could give the authorities even more tools in censoring unwelcome information and crafting their own narrative in how the ‘war on terror’ is being waged[…]” [… says Amnesty International’s Patrick Poon.] [Source]

At The Diplomat, Shannon Tiezzi cites state media coverage to note that the law’s passing provides China a legal definition of terrorism, and also expands China’s ability to cooperate in international anti-terror efforts:

while the provisions dealing with tech firms have attracted the most attention – thanks to media coverage overseas – other aspects have the potential to be much farther reaching, both for China’s war on terror and its security policy in general. For example, this law means that, for the first time, China has a legal definition of (a point Zunyou Zhou explored in more detail for The Diplomat previously). According to Xinhua:

The term “terrorism” is defined as any proposition or activity — that, by means of violence, sabotage or threat, generates social panic, undermines public security, infringes on personal and property rights, and menaces government organs and international organizations — with the aim to realize certain political and ideological purposes.

That’s the definition China’s government will now use to investigate terrorist threats and plots, using a new counterterrorism leading group and national intelligence center designed to streamline anti-terror work spanning multiple existing departments. The new law also restricts the coverage of terrorist attacks and government anti-terror efforts in the media (although reports were already tightly restricted before the law passed — one French journalist had her visa renewal blocked for criticizing China’s treatment of Uyghurs as part of its anti-terrorism crackdown).

The law also expands the scope for China to seek international cooperation in its anti-terror efforts. The new intelligence center, in addition to coordinating between Chinese government bodies, will also coordinate “trans-regional efforts on counter-terrorism intelligence and information,” according to Xinhua.

Further, the law allows China’s armed forces to take part in counterterrorism operations abroad, provided approval is granted by the foreign country in question. For now, that’s largely a moot point – China has shown neither the inclination nor the ability to conduct anti-terror military operations overseas – but it could well lay the groundwork for future military initiatives as China continues to expand its capabilities. [Source]

The definition of “terrorism” in the new law is unlikely to significantly temper earlier concerns over obscurity in the proposed definition.

Since last May, Beijing’s has been waging a “war on terror” in response to an upswing in violence in the Xinjiang region and elsewhere in China. Amid domestic anti-terror efforts, officials have repeatedly attempted to link incidents of violence in China to the global jihad movement. Following last month’s deadly attacks in Paris, central authorities called for an increase in domestic counterterrorism, while Xi Jinping vowed to join the international community in global efforts. Last week, China called for more international anti-terror cooperation, citing the Russian plane recently taken down along the Syrian border as a failure that must be avoided. Xinhua’s coverage of the new law heralds it for “establishing basic principles” for domestic and global counter-terror cooperation:

The new law comes at a delicate time for China and for the world at large – terror attacks in Paris, the bombing of a Russian passenger jet over Egypt, and the brutal killings of hostages committed by Islamic State (IS) extremist group are alerting the world about an ever-growing threat of terrorism.

According to China’s top legislator Zhang Dejiang, the new law is an important part for establishing systemic rules for .

The law establishes basic principles for counter-terrorism work and strengthens measures of prevention, handling, punishment as well as international cooperation, he said. [Source]

A commentary from Xinhua similarly praises the law for its potential to mitigate domestic and international terrorism, and also lashes out at the U.S. for State Department comments last week suggesting the law could “do more harm than good” and for exercising “double standards” regarding terrorism:

It is a known fact that throwing dirt on China at every opportunity is a favored game for someone in the United States. However, it is probably unknown to many how the United States — the presumed global leader against terrorism — came up with such a sensational and irresponsible conclusion regarding the Chinese .

[…] The proclaimed U.S. concern revolves around two points, with the first being Chinese government’s requirement for technology firms to provide encryption keys and other sensitive data in case of terror probes, and the second being tighter regulation on media when reporting terrorism-related news events.

[…] Many countries including the United States have written into law technology firms’ duty to cooperate in terror-related surveillance or probe.

[…] To admit it or not, it is the United States iself that has created grounds breeding terrorism — when its military involvement inmAfghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria has actually turned these countries into breeding grounds for terrorism.

In short, the U.S. criticism against China’s anti-terrorism legislation is but yet another case of Washington’s application of double standards in dealing with issues of terrorism. [Source]

Countering criticism of Chinese domestic anti-terror efforts by raising charges of “double standards” has become a common tactic by Beijing. Last month, French journalist Ursula Gauthier was singled out by Chinese state media as “typical of the West’s double standard” on terrorism after she wrote an article for L’Obs containing points commonly raised in foreign coverage of ethnic policies in . Gauthier has since been denied a renewal of her press credentials, as state media has resumed their smear campaign to the protest of her colleagues.

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