A draft cybersecurity law published by the National People's Congress (NPC) looks set to formalize and extend Beijing's already tight grip on the Chinese Internet, although official media denied it would curb people’s online freedom.
The draft law aims to "ensure network security, [and] safeguard the sovereignty of cyberspace and national security," according to the NPC’s official website, and will ensure Chinese Internet users aren’t allowed to "disturb the social order, [and] harm the public interest.
While this may refer to a further tightening of the existing set of blocks, filters and human censorship known collectively as the Great Firewall, officials say they are also setting out to protect Chinese infrastructure from cyberattacks, and to protect the privacy of citizens’ data.
“The 68-article draft cyber security law, which was discussed by lawmakers for the first time late last month, is designed to protect the public, not to undermine their freedom, as Western media claimed,” the state news agency Xinhua quoted NPC delegates as saying.
The draft law also formalizes measures allowing the authorities to cut off Internet access in parts of China in response to major social unrest, as occurred in the wake of the deadly 2009 ethnic riots in the Xinjiang regional capital, Urumqi.
“In order to avoid the Internet being used as a communication tool for social peril, the draft stipulates that Internet service could be temporarily suspended to respond to major emergencies that may seriously threaten public security,” Xinhua said in an article defending the draft law published on Thursday.
Citing “a series of cybersecurity incidents” in recent months, the article said Chinese users are increasingly aware of the dangers of the leakage of their personal details by the companies that hold them.
It said nearly one-third of mobile payments were made in connection with online scams in 2014.
But it also echoed Chinese concerns over cyberespionage, of which it is frequently also accused, in the wake of the revelations of U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden.
“No Internet safety means no national security,” the article quoted President Xi Jinping as saying.
Bid to consolidate control
According to Beijing-based rights activist Hu Jia, the draft law is a further bid by Xi to consolidate the control of the ruling Chinese Communist Party over every aspect of online expression.
“He is codifying into law the actual control measures that were already being used by the previous administration,” Hu said. “It’s as if he is announcing to everyone that he has become even more of an enemy of the Internet.”
“He is legalizing all of these measures and expanding them at the same time,” Hu said.
Sichuan-based rights activist Huang Qi, who founded the Tianwang website and rights advocacy group, said the draft needs major revisions.
“They are trying to decide everything based on their own ideas of right and wrong, and that’s why we think that the authorities must make some very big adjustments and rewrites to this draft,” Huang said.
“Otherwise, this draft law will just become another means by which the human rights situation gets worse.”
Guangzhou-based online activist Ye Du said he is most concerned about the clauses allowing the authorities to cut off Internet access at will.
“The most important thing in it is that they are looking at how to limit online communication between people, the passing on of news, at times of mass incidents on a major scale,” Ye said.
“[It is about] stopping people from following events, searching for information and retweeting information,” he said.
Request for opinions
The NPC has requested opinions and views on the draft, which appears to consolidate and formalize existing control mechanisms like mandatory real-name registration on all social media and forums.
It also provides for “illegal” content to be deleted.
Blogger Wen Yunchao, known online by his nickname Beifeng, said the draft is also an indicator of changing attitudes towards the Internet among the Chinese leadership.
“The regime used to regard the Internet as something that they could make use of for their own purposes,” Wen told RFA. “But Xi Jinping thinks the Internet will spell disaster for the party and the country.”
“That’s why he is managing from a national security angle … All of the Internet platforms have a lethal capacity for subversion, and I think the authorities are keenly aware of that,” he said.
William Nee, China researcher for UK-based Amnesty International, told Agence France-Presse that the cybersecurity law, if passed, would “definitely” add up to more censorship.
“It will definitely mean more censorship and probably increase penalties for people who say things that the Chinese government doesn’t like,” he said.
Reported by Hai Nan for RFA’s Cantonese Service, and by He Ping for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.