China's Cybersecurity Law Could be Used to Target Peaceful Activists

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china-internet-dec162015.jpg Xi Jinping gives a speech at the Internet conference in Wuzhen, China, Dec. 16, 2015.

China's draconian new cybersecurity law, passed by the country's rubber-stamp parliament this week, has sparked concerns that it will be used to further stifle individual freedoms after a crackdown on dissent that has lasted since President Xi Jinping took power.

The National People's Congress (NPC) adopted the controversial legislation on Monday, with the aim of "monitoring, defending and handling cybersecurity risks and threats originating from within the country or overseas sources, and protecting key information infrastructure from attack,intrusion, disturbance and damage," according to the text of the law.

Efforts will also be made to punish online crime and "safeguard the order and security of cyberspace," state news agency Xinhua reported.

It said the actions of individual users and organizations won't be allowed to damage national security, interests, or honor.

"Online activities that attempt to overthrow the socialist system, split the nation, undermine national unity, advocate terrorism and extremism are all prohibited," Xinhua said.

It also forbids "inciting ethnic hatred, discrimination and spreading violence and obscene information."

There are provisions for the controls over China's internet to be temporarily taken over by officials on approval of the cabinet, or State Council, "in response to incidents that threaten public security."

Internet service providers are also mandated to help police and other security agencies to investigate crimes and safeguard national security, which includes providing customer information when required, the law says.

"The entire law is designed to deal with the threat to the regime posed by the internet," U.S.-based blogger and online activist Wen Yunchao told RFA in a recent interview.

He said the law is likely intended to give legitimacy to existing online censorship and the prosecution of citizens for their online actions that is already taking place.

"I think when they started talking about the rule of law, they decided to make a set of laws to cover [their actions] because they knew it was infringing on citizens' rights," he said.

"They then have a legal basis to fall back on, and an excuse when dealing with any criticism from overseas," Wen said.

Even less freedom

The New York-based group Human Rights Watch meanwhile warned that the law means even less freedom for people using the internet in China, which is already tightly controlled.

"The fundamentally abusive aspects of the initial draft remain unchanged," HRW said in a statement on its website.

It said the list of crimes such as "overthrowing the socialist system," and "incitement to ethnic hatred" are already used to target peaceful activists with heavy jail sentences.

"The law fails to impose adequate protections for the right to privacy where security agencies monitor networks, investigate cybercrime, or access data held by companies," HRW said.

HRW China director Sophie Richardson said: "If online speech and privacy are a bellwether of Beijing’s attitude toward peaceful criticism, everyone—including netizens in China and major international corporations—is now at risk."

"This law’s passage means there are no protections for users against serious charges," she said.

James Zimmerman, the chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China, told Bloomberg that the law would create barriers to trade with overseas companies.

But NPC standing committee member Yang Heqing said the law is "urgently needed."

"China is an internet power, and as one of the countries that faces the greatest internet security risks, urgently needs to establish and perfect network security legal systems," Yang told reporters when the law, which comes into effect in June 2017, was passed.

Films also restricted

Similar restrictions are also being imposed on the film industry in China, with a new law that bans any film content deemed harmful to "national dignity, honor and interests."

Instead, films that promote "socialist core values" will be encouraged, in a law that was also passed by the recent session of the NPC.

Films should enrich the "spiritual and cultural life of the masses," and the law aims to set ground rules for the industry, the law said.

Films that "harm" national unity, sovereignty or territorial integrity, expose state secrets, or harm state security, or that spread terrorism or extremism will be banned, while producers in China will be barred from collaboration with overseas groups that offend Beijing.

"Overseas organizations or individuals that have been involved in activities that damage the dignity, honor, and interests of the country and harm social stability, shall not be worked with," according to the new law, which comes into effect in March 2017.

Films that "defame the people’s excellent cultural traditions," incite ethnic hatred or discrimination, or destroy ethnic unity are also banned.

Canada-based rights activist Sheng Xue said the new law had "something of the Mao era" about it.

"This law shows that their policies continue to get tighter in this area ... but the new law puts especial emphasis on socialist core values, which is adding something from the era of Mao Zedong into the mix," Sheng said.

Reported by Jing Xuan, Lin Ping, and Xi Wang for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.


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