China's broad new security laws target 'cultural infiltration,' cybersecurity

China yesterday passed the first of three rounds of national security laws that deepen centralized control over all aspects of society and foreign interests.

Jason Lee/Reuters
Military helicopters flew in formation on the outskirts of Beijing Thursday above a billboard with a picture of China's late Chairman Mao Zedong. They were training for the upcoming parade marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. China's new security laws task the PLA with protecting the country's 'overseas interests.'

China yesterday passed its most sweeping and explicit national security laws since the Mao Zedong-era, part of President Xi Jinping’s ongoing project to centralize power and control in the Communist Party and to eliminate dissent.

The laws are the first of three sets of security legislation, closely watched in the West, that make “vigilance over security” a primary emphasis across China’s vast systems of party and government, including its military and police.

The laws bolster Beijing's recent emphasis on a “legal” regime of party-state authority that covers all aspects of society, culture, and foreign policy, including China’s recent island-building in the Pacific and cyberspace.

The laws appear poised to restrict forms of foreign investment and NGO activity, allow quick arrests on grounds of “security,” and quash free expression and social media. Officials stressed a need to “carry forth the exceptional culture of the Chinese nationality” and to route out “cultural infiltration.”

Zheng Shuna, deputy director of a National People’s Congress committee that passed the law Wednesday, said without elaborating that China’s security situation is “increasingly grim” and “more complicated than at any other time in history,” The New York Times reports, though she also stressed in other comments that China is open for normal business and trade.

The legislation seems the clearest signal to date of China’s official shift from the relatively free-wheeling days of openness that ran from the end of the Deng Xiaoping era in the early 1990s to the Hu Jintao era a few years ago.

President Xi, since 2013, has reined in competing centers of power and wealth in China through an anticorruption campaign, and has cracked down on civil society, the arts, faith communities, university professors, and avenues of foreign influence and “Western values.”

Jerome Cohen, a legal scholar at New York University and China-watcher for many years, said the laws “reflect the party’s determination to create a garrison state,” in a description to The Wall Street Journal. He called them “an ideological platform that guides domestic and foreign policies.” 

In June, during the rollout of the legislation, Joerg Wuttke of the European Union Chamber of Commerce similarly called the legislation a “massive national security overreach.”

While Chinese authorities said the legislation covered the autonomous region of Hong Kong, they said the laws would not be applied there. The Hong Kong government, already embattled after a year of democracy activism, released a statement today that the laws would not be taken up on its territory.

China included Taiwan in its stated scope of security laws, which the Mainland Affairs Council authority in Taipei described today as “rude.”

The laws promulgated this week sketch out a broad conceptual basis for two coming packages of more specific rules. The Los Angeles Times notes, however, that Wednesday’s rollout

...places a particular emphasis on cybersecurity and the Internet, stressing the need to bolster the nation’s IT systems and network defenses and asserting “cyberspace sovereignty” over the Internet in China. Information systems and data in key sectors must be "secure and controllable," it says.

The U.S. has accused China of conducting commercial espionage against American businesses and Chinese hackers are suspected in a recent major infiltration of U.S. government personnel databases. But China has categorically rejected such allegations and says it is a constant victim of cyber-attacks itself.

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