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Expansions to China's Espionage Law Create Anxiety for Foreign Media  

FILE - Journalists in a media center watch Chinese Premier Li Qiang as he speaks at the opening ceremony of the Boao Forum for Asia in Boao in southern China's Hainan province, March 30, 2023.
FILE - Journalists in a media center watch Chinese Premier Li Qiang as he speaks at the opening ceremony of the Boao Forum for Asia in Boao in southern China's Hainan province, March 30, 2023.

WASHINGTON - Amendments to China's counterespionage law that take effect Saturday could create even more challenges for foreign correspondents reporting inside the country, journalists and media analysts say.

Passed in April, the revisions broaden the definition of espionage and ban the transfer of any information deemed related to national security.

Some foreign journalists based in China say they are anxiously waiting to see how the changes will affect their work, with press freedom analysts predicting the revisions will make news gathering more difficult.

"Quite a few of us are worried about what it is and what it might mean. It's a little bit difficult to tell at the moment because it's not entirely clear what it means or how it's going to be implemented," a foreign correspondent in Beijing told VOA. He requested anonymity over concerns for his safety.

"Any kind of news gathering seems like it could be construed as a violation of this law," the reporter added.

The revisions expand the definition of espionage to constitute accessing "documents, data, materials or items related to national security and interests."

As Cedric Alviani of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), sees it, that means "basically any type of information."

The amendments will also grant authorities the ability to impose exit bans on individuals, regardless of nationality, as well as sweeping power to investigate anyone suspected of spying.

The Chinese Embassy in Washington directed VOA to a statement from Mao Ning, spokesperson for China's Foreign Ministry, who at a recent press conference said, "There is no need to associate the counterespionage law with reporting activities of foreign journalists."

"China always welcomes media outlets and journalists of all countries to conduct interviews and run stories in China in accordance with laws and regulations, and we will provide facilitation and assistance to them," the spokesperson added. "As long as one abides by laws and regulations, there is no need to worry."

'Ambiguity as a weapon'

The defining characteristic of the amendments, according to multiple China analysts, is their vagueness. But that's typical for China, they said, where government transparency has never been the norm.

"What's a state secret has always itself been something of a state secret," the Beijing bureau chief of an American outlet told VOA. In China, "ambiguity as a weapon has been used for a long time."

The bureau chief did not have employer authorization to talk to other reporters about this topic because of its sensitivity and therefore requested anonymity.

Alviani shared a similar view, saying the murky amendments turn the law into "a catch-all regulation that could be used as an excuse to detain and jail any person for any reason."

Still, James Zimmerman, a partner at the Perkins Coie law firm's Beijing office, which counsels foreign companies, doesn't think the revisions will have a major impact on press freedom in China.

"The environment continues to be challenging for journalists with or without the amendments," Zimmerman told VOA. The lawyer said he thinks the amendments will be used more to encourage self-censorship.

But the fact that there is precedent for these revisions doesn't do much to allay the concerns of wary foreign reporters in the country.

"Even if there is precedent, and even if they do tend to use their powers rather sweepingly, the fact that they felt compelled to make this change explicit and codify it in writing is definitely concerning," the Beijing correspondent said. "And it makes us all wonder what's coming."

To Zimmerman, who previously served as chair of the American Chamber of Commerce in China, the revisions reflect that Beijing perceives any challenge to the government's official line as a threat to its legitimacy.

At the same time, he said, Beijing still wants foreign media to write about China's "good stories."

"What the propaganda machine doesn't understand is that harassment is counterproductive to its ultimate goal of promoting the good things about China and only creates a whole new story line, and that is usually negative," Zimmerman said.

China's press freedom environment is poor, with the county ranking 179th out of 180 countries, according to RSF.

Foreign correspondents often face harassment, surveillance and difficulty finding sources willing to talk to reporters.

It can also be hard to find China-based foreign correspondents to talk to. Several foreign journalists in China told VOA they did not want to comment on the counterespionage law, even anonymously, because the topic is so sensitive.

Yaqiu Wang, a China expert at Human Rights Watch, said local Chinese journalists, fixers, translators and others who help foreign media are even more at risk.

"They are usually in the most precarious situation," she said. "We shouldn't forget them."

The fact that China is one of the world's worst jailers of journalists — the majority of whom are Chinese, not foreign — underscores the risks.

Journalists who spoke with VOA said they aren't sure how the revisions will affect them personally and whether the amendments will impact how they report in China. For some, that confusion has given way to apprehension and anxiety.

"To be working with uncertainty about whether what you're doing might be construed as espionage — that's a very chilling thought on top of so many other chilling thoughts that we've been subjected to," the bureau chief said.

As for the correspondent, "everyone's feeling kind of jumpy," he said, "but it's very much 'wait and see' at the moment."