The ruling Chinese Communist Party is mulling a draft intelligence law that will grant sweeping powers already effectively wielded by its state security police.
Under the draft legislation, posted for comment on the website of the country's parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC), China's police, state security police, and military are authorized to carry out spying activities inside and outside China.
They may also investigate any foreign or Chinese citizens who are seen as a threat to national security.
China's spies have a duty to "guard against and dispel state security threats" to major national interests, the draft law said.
These include matters relating to state power, sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity, it said.
In pursuit of such work, people who obstruct such work, or who are regarded as having leaked "state secrets," could face administrative detention of up to 15 days without trial, it said.
In practice, the authorities have repeatedly used charges of "revealing state secrets," "harming national security," and "subversion of state power" to target peaceful critics of the government, including democracy activists, rights lawyers, and journalists.
The new law permits intelligence officials to enter "restricted access areas" and use "technological reconnaissance measures" when required.
Spy agencies may also establish "cooperative relationships" with individuals, suggesting government blessing for a nationwide network of informants, sources told RFA.
Rights lawyer Ren Quanniu said there is no need for the legislation, which is vague and appears merely to legitimize existing covert activities.
"They can already do all of these things without any intelligence legislation," Ren said. "I don't understand why they have to enshrine them in law."
"As a lawyer, it is very unclear to me what exactly what manner of information constitutes intelligence," he said.
Veteran journalist Zhu Xinxin said the law could be aimed at keeping secret any information linked to scandals within the ruling elite.
"For example, any information pertaining to wrong-doing at the highest echelons of the Chinese Communist Party could come within its remit," Zhu said. "They could also use ridiculous charges like incitement to subvert state power as a way of terrorizing pro-democracy activists."
"I think this is just a question of them trying to tighten up just a bit more on freedom of expression, and trying to use fear to keep people within their own ranks in line," she said.
"They are afraid that news of internal power struggles will get leaked to the outside world."
An article in the Global Times newspaper, sister paper to Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily, appeared to support Zhu's view, citing Chongqing party school professor Su Wei as saying: "Chinese citizens should always keep national security in mind when communicating with overseas sources."
"Personal information leaks are severe. So leaks in the country's intelligence will bring even greater damage," Su told the paper.
And the paper quoted international relations professor Yang Jianying as saying that "Chinese citizens need to be educated to build and enhance their sense of intelligence."
Hong Kong-based journalist Ching Cheong, who served five years in jail on spying charges for doing his job as a journalist, said the most worrying aspect of the law is the emphasis on intelligence work among the general population, turning ordinary people into agents who spy on their neighbors.
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Goh Fung for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.