03/02/2010, 00.00
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New laws on state secrecy and military power in case of crises

The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress approves new legislation. Few changes are envisaged. Civilian and military authorities see their powers strengthened. Beijing is hard pressed to control rising social unrest.
Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC) approved two new laws, one concerning state secrecy, the other about war or major disasters. This comes on the eve of the next NPC session, scheduled for the end of this week.

Security remains a dominant theme in Beijing, and Premier Wen Jiabao said 2010 would be the most complex year yet this century for the mainland economy, which faces the dangers of inflation, assets bubbles and unsolved social problems.

In China, the label ‘state secret’ covers a broad area, including natural disasters. Revealing state secrets is a very serious crime, punishable with many years in jail. However, there is no precise definition of what constitutes secrecy. Indeed, the authorities have often been criticised for using the principle to silence critics and restrict freedom of speech.

The State Security Bureau has the ultimate power to decide whether any information is a state secret. It has absolute authority; not even courts can challenge its determinations. Anyone charged with breaching state secrecy has virtually no chance of countering the accusation.

The new draft proposal still does not give a clear-cut definition. It refers instead to state secrets being "matters concerning national security and interests that, if exposed, could cause harm to national security and interests in the areas of politics, economy and national defence".

In the end, the authorities still have the power to determine what secrecy is. Central and provincial-level governments have the power to decide what information should be classified a top state secret. Lower tiers of officialdom will only be able to mark documents "classified" or simply "secret".

Last Saturday, the Standing Committee also adopted a law on national defence mobilisation. The law empowers the State Council and the Central Military Commission to mobilise the civilian sector in the event of war or "threats to national sovereignty, unification, territorial integrity and security".  This means that the military has the power to control banking, energy and foreign-invested factories on the mainland.

It is the first time China has put into writing the rights of the military to mobilise civilian resources in times of crisis. The law spells out how and when affected civilian sectors should be compensated.

The bill was "very necessary to respond to various kinds of threats to national defence and security", said Sun Zhenping, director of the national law office in the NPC Standing Committee's legal work committee. "At present, our national defence and security situation is generally stable," Sun added, “but traditional and non-traditional threats to security still exist."

Analysts believe that the law is an indication of rising concern in Beijing about the effects of the difficult economic situation, especially the growing number of protests and rising social unrest.

In its Annual Report on China's Rule of Law, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) found that in the first 10 months of last year, the number of criminal cases rose 10 per cent to 5.3 million, whilst the number of public security cases rose 20 per cent to 9.9 million.

According to the report, social unrest is linked to the financial and economic crisis. This year, the risks could even be greater. In fact, despite the economic recovery underway, the country still faces major unresolved social problems, starting with the tens of millions of migrant workers who lost their job and are still unemployed.

The report noted that the growing number of petitions, mass protests and violent clashes with local authorities are a measure of the growing social unrest. This is symptomatic of the fact that “local government often” fail “to analyse the cause of [. . .] incidents in depth. They are used to making simple conclusions like ‘the people did not understand the truth' and ‘were incited by an extremely small number of bad people and thugs’. “This just misses the key to resolving such mass incidents.”

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