On December 27, China’s National People’s Congress passed the country’s much-debated anti-terrorism legislation. Although the text is still being translated into English, numerous analyses have already emerged, some based on apparently outdated versions of the law. As a service to future commentators, below is a brief analysis—based on the original Mandarin—on which portions of the legislation did, and did not, make the final cut.
Foreign observers have been most concerned by Beijing’s reputed insistence on companies establishing a “backdoor” to encrypted communications and keeping data stored on Chinese citizens within the country. In terms of encryption, Article 18 as passed states that internet service providers (ISPs) must extend technical interfaces, decryption, and other technical assistance and support to anti-terror authorities. This language appears to walk back earlier drafts of the law that mandated “backdoors.” However, it is unclear what precisely “decryption and other technical assistance” entails. The provisions requiring that information on Chinese citizens be stored in China does not appear in the final bill.
Article 3 broadens the legal definition of “terrorism.” Previous drafts added creating social panic and endangering public safety to terrorism offenses. The final law goes further and also includes the vague “violating person and property” (qinfan renshen caichan 侵犯人身财产) as possible terrorism.
Article 43 consolidates most of China’s sprawling anti-terrorism bureaus into a single National Counter-Terrorism Intelligence Center. This follows President Xi’s attempts to centralize his power over public security and intelligence bureaus by appointing himself head of various ad-hoc leading groups (lingdao xiaozu 领导小组) in Beijing, most notably the group on Internet Security and Informatization and the group on Comprehensively Deepening Reforms. The move also comes after the recent announcement by Zhongnanhai that the State Council would proceed with its 5-year plan to strengthen the rule of law in China.
Notably, Article 69 of the final law permits Chinese provinces and counties in border regions to collaborate with neighboring countries in intelligence-sharing and law enforcement. This may seem anathema to China’s unitary political system, but Beijing actually has a long tradition of delegating relevant powers to local authorities, from the late Qing era all the way through Maoism and the reform and opening up. The nod to cross-border collaboration also comes as Beijing continues to analyze the impact cross-border flows between China, Pakistan, and Southeast Asia has on stemming militancy. Although some argue that the instability in Xinjiang is homegrown and due primarily to repressive Chinese practices, China insists much of it is the result of foreign extremists and radicalized Uyghurs infiltrating Xinjiang society.
Article 71 permits Beijing to send security forces abroad on anti-terrorism missions with the approval of the military and the respective countries. This is testament to the growing vulnerability of Chinese assets abroad and the Chinese fear of transnational militancy. At least 4 Chinese citizens died in terrorist activities in Mali and Syria in November, causing popular and social media furor in China. Additionally, Beijing asserts that over 300 Uyghurs have joined the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Article 90 restricts the right of media and other bodies or individuals to report on the details of terrorist attacks and on the government’s reaction to them. Beijing can detain people for up to two weeks and levy fines of 200,000 yuan (31,000 USD) for disseminating false information, reporting on the methods of terrorist actions, transmitting “gruesome or inhumane scenes” from terrorist incidents, or transmitting the identities of involved individuals.
These are a few of the most salient points among many aspects of the legislation. The bill’s passage comes at a critical time for Beijing. The country has had some wins as of late; its recent success in compelling Thailand to return several Chinese Uyghur nationals was seen as a testament to its growing assertiveness and savvy in protecting its national security interests. And the $45 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) proceeds apace. This mammoth project is aimed at bolstering the two countries’ transport and security infrastructure and preventing the flow of transnational jihadist groups from simmering areas in the Middle East and Subcontinent to Xinjiang. But the task remains daunting – Yunnan remains a nexus of drug and people-smuggling, hostilities persist along the China-Myanmar border, and Xinjiang’s huge area (it is roughly the same size as Iran) continues to bedevil China’s rapidly-growing security forces.
China’s quagmire in Xinjiang and its resulting buildup of security assets there is only escalating. Despite China’s long-held ronghe (融合) policy, which seeks to promote assimilation of ethnic minorities through cultural interchange and economic development, casualties continue to pile up in the region, especially in the Uyghur-dominated south around Kashgar. Where economic development fails, Beijing is intent on continuing its “strike hard” policy of bringing militants to heel, especially following the Paris attacks. President Xi appears to be taking a page from US statecraft; not only is he personally interested in the security situation, but he aims to centralize and update China’s security services to put down the militancy there once and for all. Already in 2015, over 335 Communist Party officials have been purged in Xinjiang for various “disciplinary violations,” border patrols have increased, and restrictions on “extremist behavior” and “propaganda” have been tightened.
What remains to be seen is whether this new law—and President Xi’s designs in Xinjiang—ultimately succeed in establishing Chinese sovereignty and stability in its border regions.