Human rights groups attack China draft security law

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Originally published by The Financial Times on May 24, 2015

International human rights groups have slammed China’s new draft national security law for criminalising free speech and religious practices while granting the ruling Communist party sweeping powers to punish peaceful critics and dissenters.

The vaguely worded draft law “includes a broad and ill-defined definition of ‘national security’, and provisions that would allow prosecution of dissenting views, religious beliefs, information online, and challenges to China’s ‘cyber sovereignty’,” said Hong Kong-based group China Human Rights Defenders (CHRD).

Under the new law, crimes that violate national security would include “negative cultural penetration”, threats to “sustainable economic and social development” and violations of “national internet sovereignty”.

It also stipulates “obligations to maintain national security” for citizens and organisations, both of which could be held legally accountable if they failed to meet obligations such as providing “relevant data, information or technical support” to state security, public security and the military.

“Under this law, police would be allowed to charge anybody who refuses to become a police informant or who are seen as associated with those targeted by police, as posing threats to national security,” CHRD said.

China’s secret police and domestic security services already regularly target peaceful critics of the regime with a range of spurious charges and commit basic human rights abuses.

International rights groups say President Xi Jinping’s administration has orchestrated the most strident crackdown on civil society since the early 1990s.

They have documented nearly 1,000 people who were arbitrarily detained for their political views in 2014, nearly the same number as in the previous two years combined.

In one example, prominent human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang was detained a year ago and will soon be charged for making critical remarks on social media about China’s policies towards ethnic minorities and for speaking sarcastically about two senior Communist party officials, according to an indictment circulated this week and confirmed by Mr Pu’s lawyer.

He faces charges of “inciting ethnic hatred” and “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” for posting messages on his microblog account that “openly insulted others”. His actions “damaged social order” and he “should be held criminally responsible,” according to the indictment.

If convicted, Mr Pu faces a maximum of 10 years in prison.

The charges facing Mr Pu and the draft law make it clear that anyone who offends senior individuals in the party hierarchy can be persecuted and handed long sentences for merely speaking their minds.

“The vague list of restrictions in the name of national security in this draft will make it impossible for people to know what behaviour is actually prohibited and will allow the authorities to prosecute anyone who essentially crosses their ever moving line of ‘illegal activities’,” said William Nee, China researcher for Amnesty International. “It is as much to do with protecting the Communist party and punishing those that criticise the leadership as addressing national security.”

The draft law is open for public comments until June 5 but is likely to be adopted by China’s rubber stamp parliament with few significant changes, according to rights groups.

Earlier this month, the government also released a draft law on “management of foreign non-governmental organisations” that rights groups say would constitute a terrible blow to Chinese civil society and international engagement.

If implemented, this law would require international NGOs to accept a high level of oversight from Chinese security services and government organs.

“The spirit and substantive provisions of the [foreign NGO law] draft are consistent with the intensifying trend of broadened crackdowns on domestic civil society since President Xi Jinping assumed power in 2013,” rights group Human Rights in China said.

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