July 4, 2023
SEOUL – China’s revised anti-espionage law came into effect on Saturday.
Its scope of espionage activities was broadened. Beijing became more powerful than ever to punish what it deems threats to national security.
The problem is that the concept of espionage has become ambiguous.
Reportedly under the law, “relying on espionage organizations and their agents” as well as the unauthorized obtaining of “documents, data, materials and items related to national security and interests” can constitute a spying offense.
The law did not specify national security and interests. As such, it is unclear what kind of documents, data or materials could be considered relevant.
Not only state secrets but also information not considered to be secret may be a spying offense. It is also unclear what “relying on espionage organizations and their agents” means. Considering the lack of clarity, arbitrary judgment is likely.
According to an advisory by the South Korean Embassy in China, searching published maps, photos and statistical data on the internet and storing them in a smartphone or laptop may cause an issue.
The law extended spying offenses to include taking pictures of state institutions and key information infrastructure. Visits to demonstration sites and photographing such sites, as well as religious activities that the Chinese government bans also constitute espionage activities.
Even if spying charges cannot be proved due to a lack of evidence, a suspect can still be fined.
Enacting and enforcing a law is a matter connected with the sovereignty of a country, but there are preconditions for a law. It should agree with the universal values of humankind and guarantee minimum human and fundamental rights. It should not infringe excessively upon the sovereignty of other countries and the rights of their peoples.
In this respect, the revised Chinese law is worrisome. Even routine activities of foreign residents and tourists in China can be viewed as espionage.
Beijing insists it has the right to “safeguard its national security through legislation” and says it will “uphold the rule of law.” However, unease over the revised law is not dissipating.
Some foreign think tanks and consulting firms have reportedly started to avoid contact with Chinese officials so as not to fall under suspicion.
Along with the anti-spying law, a new foreign relations law was enforced on the same day. The foreign relations law strengthens the Chinese government’s legal basis for “countermeasures” against foreign sanctions on China. Under the law, “any organization or individual who commits acts that are detrimental to China’s national interests” will be penalized. Like the anti-espionage law, this law’s language lacks clarity about offenses and penalties.
Beijing is clearly enforcing such hard-line laws keeping its competition with the United States in mind. Although the US is Beijing’s primary target, South Korea is also at risk of falling victim to their hegemonic struggle. Considering no South Korean has been punished under the anti-spying law since its enactment in 2014, there is no need to be prematurely concerned. However, it never hurts to take precautions.
Furthermore, tensions between Seoul and Beijing have recently been on the rise. It is a well-known fact that China took effectively retaliatory measures against Korean companies in response to the installation of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-ballistic missile system in South Korea. If competition between Washington and Beijing intensifies, such incidents may occur more frequently. China is geographically and economically close to South Korea. The impact of its laws is unavoidable. It has become more urgent to lessen our dependence on China.
The personal safety of Koreans in China should be of top concern. The government must work on measures to prevent people from violating the laws in China. It also needs to hold consultations with Beijing about its laws.
Korean residents, businessmen and travelers in China should remain cautious. It may not be wise to make any unnecessary trips to the country, at least for the time being.