Reuters and The Associated Press
China’s parliament passed a controversial new anti-terrorism law in December 2015 that requires technology firms to hand over sensitive information such as encryption keys to the government and allows the military to venture overseas on counterterror operations.
Chinese officials say their country faces a growing threat from militants and separatists, especially in its unruly Western region of Xinjiang, where hundreds have died in violence in the past few years.
The law has attracted deep concern in Western capitals not only because of worries that it could violate human rights such as freedom of speech but also because of the law’s cyber provisions. U.S. President Barack Obama raised concerns about the law directly with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
While a provision in an initial draft that would require companies to keep servers and user data within China was removed from the final law, technology companies will still have to provide help with sensitive encryption information if law enforcement authorities demand it.
Speaking after China’s largely rubber-stamp parliament passed the law, Li Shouwei, deputy head of the parliament’s criminal law division under the legislative affairs committee, said China was simply doing what other Western nations already do in asking technology firms to help fight terror.
This will not affect the normal operation of tech companies, and they have nothing to fear in terms of having “back doors” installed or losing intellectual property rights, Li added.
Officials in Washington have argued that the law, combined with new draft banking and insurance rules and a slew of anti-trust investigations, amounts to unfair regulatory pressure targeting foreign companies.
China’s national security law adopted in July 2015 requires all key network infrastructure and information systems to be “secure and controllable.”
The anti-terrorism law also permits the People’s Liberation Army to get involved in anti-terrorism operations overseas, though experts have said China faces major practical and diplomatic problems if it ever wants to do this.
An Weixing, head of the Public Security Ministry’s counterterrorism division, said China faced a serious threat from terrorists, especially “East Turkestan” forces, China’s general term for Islamist separatists it says operate in Xinjiang.
“Terrorism is the public enemy of mankind, and the Chinese government will oppose all forms of terrorism,” An said.
Rights groups, though, doubt the existence of a cohesive militant group in Xinjiang and say the unrest mostly stems from anger among the region’s Muslim Uighur people over restrictions on their religion and culture.
The new law also restricts the right of media to report on details of terror attacks, including a provision that media and social media cannot report on details of terror activities that might lead to imitation, nor show scenes that are “cruel and inhuman.”
The National People’s Congress said its standing committee adopted the law with a unanimous vote. The law went into effect January 1, 2016.
Rights advocates and foreign governments have expressed concerns about the law’s likely impact on tech businesses and freedom of speech.
They say it is troublesome that telecommunications companies and Internet service providers are required to share encryption keys and back door access with the police and state security agents seeking to prevent terrorist activities or investigating terror acts.
Chinese officials said in late December 2015 that the requirements for the tech firms are necessary because terrorists are increasingly turning to cyberspace.
They said lawmakers balanced the needs to fight terrorism and to protect business interests and public rights.
“Relevant regulations in the anti-terrorism law will not affect the normal business operation of companies, and we do not use the law to set up ‘back doors’ to violate the intellectual property rights of companies,” Li said,
“The law will not damage people’s freedom of speech or religion,” Li said.
Beijing has asserted that China is a victim of global terrorism following violent ethnic clashes involving members of the Muslim minority Uighur community in the far northwest region of Xinjiang. Foreign experts, however, have argued that there is no proof of foreign ties and that the violence in Xinjiang might be homegrown.
China has accused the West of adopting double standards. Beijing recently refused to renew the press credentials of a French journalist, effectively expelling her, for questioning Beijing’s equating of ethnic conflicts with global terrorism.
Li said at a news conference that China’s anti-terrorism law targets no specific region, ethnicity or religion.