Internet user to official: "Strip! It’s your turn!" (Southern Metropolis Daily/Kuang Biao)

China’s state secrets law leaves journalists exposed

The Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress adopted a revised state secrets law on April 29. The changes, which take effect October 1, put greater onus on media and telecommunications companies to defend state secrets and cooperate with authorities investigating alleged violations of the legislation. Chinese commentators point out that while individuals are having to reveal more and more about themselves online, an official culture of concealment allows corruption to flourish unreported.

Internet user to official: "Strip! It’s your turn!" (Southern Metropolis Daily/Kuang Biao)
Internet user to official: “Strip! It’s your turn!” (Southern Metropolis Daily/Kuang Biao)

What constitutes a state secret? That remains ill-defined, and a major source of CPJ’s concern about the law: It can be used to imprison journalists and others for publishing information authorities find unwelcome, whether that information is a matter of national security or not. Obliging information technology companies to collaborate in this process codifies an existing practice: Yahoo notoriously helped authorities identify freelancer Shi Tao as the author of an e-mail detailing propaganda department instructions to the editor of an overseas Web site in 2004. Officials retroactively classified the information, leading to Shi’s conviction and 10-year prison sentence for leaking secrets abroad.

A Chinese researcher for The New York Times was also ensnared in an abusive state secrets prosecution. The Times’ Andrew Jacobs wrote last month: 

It was only in 2007 that Zhao Yan, a researcher in the Beijing bureau of The New York Times, emerged from three years of detention after he was convicted of fraud. The unrelated accusations that led to his arrest—that he had revealed state secrets—were based on a Times article that correctly predicted the impending retirement of a senior Chinese leader. The state secrets charge, which was far more serious than fraud, eventually was dismissed, but not before the prosecutors introduced documents that had come from a desk in the Times office—an indication that we were never really alone.

Even when, as in Zhao’s case, state secrets charges are dropped or replaced, their inclusion is enough to close trials to observers, shielding irregular prosecutions from scrutiny.

In China, journalists are debating this issue of transparency, pointing out that officials invoke state secrets to deflect questions on a range of issues and inhibit their ability to report. Many follow the state-run Xinhua news agency in welcoming restrictions the new version places on the level of authority required to classify and de-classify information. Others say further reform is needed to prevent some in power from abusing the law to keep their entertainment budgets from the public eye:

“‘That contains sensitive information,’ or ‘That’s classified,’ are simply excuses,” writes the Beijing News today. “If one can still eat and drink well under the auspices of ‘state secrets,’ why follow the example of Baimiao?” 

Baimiao is a Sichuan township with finances so transparent they have generated the coinage “Naked Government.” So far, it looks like a possibly successful experiment in openness. The state secrets law, by contrast, looks set to perpetuate administrative cover-ups in the rest of the country.