New Chinese foreign relations law targets businesspeople, journalists


It embraces ambiguity to the point it could be used to clamp down on any perceived threat, analysts say.

New Chinese foreign relations law targets businesspeople, journalists

Flags flutter near the Chinese national emblem outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, Wednesday, March 7, 2012.

China has enacted a new foreign relations law that takes a broad view of what constitutes espionage in a move that may make China even harder to safely navigate for foreign journalists and businesspeople.

The law – which came into effect on Saturday – appears to be an effort to provide a legal basis for punishing any individuals or organizations that threaten China’s interests, which may include any moves that suggest “de-risking” or “decoupling,” at least according to state media rhetoric over recent days.

The law has also been interpreted to be a move to provide a legal framework for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s world view, as it embraces two of his signature foreign policy initiatives: The Global Security Initiative and the Global Civilization Initiative.

Experts concurred roundly that the legislation’s ambiguous language would be open to interpretation on a case-by-case basis and could threaten the activities of foreign journalists and businesspeople in China.

It expands the definition of espionage to constitute accessing “documents, data, materials or items related to national security and interests,” leading Cedric Alviani of Reporters Without Borders tocomment that it covered, “basically any type of information.”

The law was approved by the standing committee of the National People’s Congress last Wednesday, just days ahead of the Communist Party’s 102nd founding anniversary, which was on Saturday.

The revisions to China’s counterespionage law first came to light in late April this year, amid raids on foreign businesses in Shanghai and Beijing – notably, U.S. management consultancy firm Bain and Co. and U.S. due diligence company Mintz.

Mao Ning, spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, said at a news conference: “There is no need to associate the counterespionage law with reporting activities of foreign journalists.

“China always welcomes media outlets and journalists of all countries to conduct interviews and run stories in China in accordance with laws and regulations, and we will provide facilitation and assistance to them.

“As long as one abides by laws and regulations, there is no need to worry,” Mao added.

Commentators countered that so-called “state secrets” and “activities that undermine social order” were so poorly defined it was difficult to know how to avoid being accused of breaking the rules.

Legitimizing foreign policy

Some legal experts were less convinced that the new law would be used as a dragnet to sweep up anyone the Communist Party doesn’t like or ban them from the country – given that China has regularly done so before the law was promulgated. Rather, they said that the law aims to provide a legitimizing framework for China’s resistance to an international rules-based system that Beijing perceives as biased against China’s development and rise.

Suisheng Zhao, a professor at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, described the law as a broad legal legitimization of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s stated goal of bringing about a post-Western, new world order.

“It’s a personalization of Chinese foreign policy through a legal process,” making it “clear that the party is in charge of foreign policy, and the foreign ministry and State Council is the implementing institution” Xhao said.

“In order to counter the ‘Western containment,’ Xi tries to mobilize everything available to him – including so-called legal instruments,” he added.

An editorial in state tabloid the Global Times said the new law would counteract frequent interference in China’s internal affairs, unilateral sanctions, and “long-arm jurisdiction” by certain Western hegemonic countries using “legal” means.

China’s top diplomat Wang Yi wrote in Chinese-language state media on Thursday that the law was a systematic integration of China’s long-standing diplomatic policies and conceptual practices.

“This legislation marks a new legal and institutional development stage in China’s foreign relations,” the Global Times added.

Worsening relations

An increasingly isolated Beijing has been seeking ways to strike back at U.S. sanctions, tariffs and export controls, as it struggles to juggle its aggressive wolf-warrior diplomacy and simultaneously project an “open for business” façade to the West.

On Friday, in a further blow to China’s access to advanced chip technology, Dutch manufacturer ASML said in a statement that effective September 1, it will be necessary to apply for a license from The Hague to ship its most advanced chip-manufacturing lithography systems.

China has its own “unreliable entity list” but it has been largely ineffective in terms of pushing back on U.S. Defense contractors. Lockheed Martin Corp. and Raytheon Corp. have been named as entities but neither provides arms to China.

Beijing has put an effective ban on Micron Technology Inc., a U.S. manufacturer of memory chips, which was described as a “cautious move” because such chips can be locally sourced.

On Sunday, according to a U.S. Treasury Department press release, it was announced that Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen will travel to Beijing, from July 6-9 for meetings with senior Chinese officials, in a further effort to bolster Sino-U.S. relations, which are at their most fractious in decades.

The trip follows close on the heels of last month’s trip by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, during which both sides claimed to be “satisfied” that a first step had been made toward reestablishing communication between the two powers.

Edited by Mike Firn.

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