Tea Leaf Nation

Zero Dark Dirty

Beijing still considers a surprising amount of information secret.

Beijing may be whittling back its widely reviled state secrets laws -- but given their opacity, it's hard to say for sure. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang signed a regulation, announced Feb. 2, that would prohibit Chinese government organs from "using the law to classify those matters which should be made public," according to state-run Xinhua news service. In an English-language article, Xinhua added that the regulation will "boost government transparency." But China's state secrets law remains still broad enough -- and vague enough -- to deny the Chinese public access to a surprisingly wide range of information.

It's hard to criticize Li for pushing back against abuse of the law by wayward Chinese officials, who long ago discovered that they could bury incriminating material by classifying it as secret, or some variety thereof: top secret (where Chinese law says disclosure would cause "extremely serious harm"), highly secret, and secret. But the new language simply restates the flip side of the current law, which essentially says: Whatever should be secret shall be so labeled -- trust us. 

Even the current regulations issued by Chinese authorities about state secrets are opaque enough to keep the most conscientious rule-follower in the dark. In an August 2012 memorandum called "Traps for the Unwary in Disputes Involving China," respected international law firm Jones Day seemed to throw up its hands, calling the law "as vague as it is broad." If there is one thread running through this maze, it's the unifying principle that Beijing is determined to keep information that it believes would rile the public under wraps. That lack of clarity is enough to scare off some journalists and public advocates; the Jones Day memorandum notes that in practice, the secrecy laws essentially allow authorities "almost unlimited discretion" to define a state secret. There's no evidence that dynamic is about to change.

A report by NGO Human Rights in China, which translates some of the rules that classify information into different types of secrets, provides a glimpse into this confounding realm. (The report was authored in 2007, and it's not entirely clear whether the cited rules remain on the books -- Beijing does not appear to have publicly updated these classifications in recent years, although it revised the overall State Secrets Law in 2010 to expand its reach. That said, the report is an excellent exposition on the subject.) Among those pieces of information that Chinese law has labeled highly secret: 

  • Undisclosed information and data on the handling of child labor cases nation-wide.
  • Plans and strategies for participating in meetings of international labor organizations.
  • Statistics from family planning departments regarding the number of induced abortions.

Meanwhile, among the merely secret:

  • Analyses of important trends in speeches or writings by ethnic minorities.
  • Reactions to important issues concerning the implementation of religious policies.
  • Compiled information and statistics held by the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, a massive state-run union, concerning worker unemployment and the financial hardships of workers.

    Gathering, possessing, or disseminating these secrets can lead to criminal detention or imprisonment. Making matters worse, certain information not specifically labeled secret at the time it was disclosed can be retroactively classified as such. Anything that endangers the ability of the state to consolidate and defend its power is secret, for example -- and its disclosure can be punished, even if it wasn't considered dangerous at the time it was revealed. That means the law extends back in time, creating a dragnet with no discernable edges.

    The change to the secrets law announced on Feb. 2 reflects awareness that this vast discretion has been abused before. In one egregious example from August 2002, an AIDS activist was detained for sharing details of the spread of the disease in central Henan province; it turned out that as many as one million people in Henan had contracted the disease. And in February 2003, a health official in the southern province of Guangdong refused to share details about another headline-grabbing disease, the deadly Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, commonly known as SARS, under cover of the secrecy law. In February 2013, Chinese authorities withheld soil pollution data in the face of a citizen request by labeling it a state secret -- as of December 2013, the results were still under lock and key.

    Li's move is better than nothing, as it may make it harder for government officials to exploit state secret laws for their own ends. But that doesn't change the fundamental equation: The Chinese Communist Party remains prepared to invoke state secrets, and punish whistleblowers, in order to hide information it deems threatening to its rule.

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Tea Leaf Nation

Why It's Dangerous to Say 'We Are All Chinese'

A starlet discovers the hard way how much Hong Kongers dislike their mainland bretheren.

When 34-year-old Hong Kong singer and actress Ella Koon penned a column for the respected local paper Ming Pao on Jan. 24 entitled "Kick Out Hatred and Discrimination," she was trying to beseech her fellow Hong Kong residents to be more tolerant toward mainland Chinese visitors. Instead, she has found herself pilloried online in a display of hatred toward mainlanders that's become eerily typical over the past several years.

Hong Kong, a financial center and Special Administrative Region of China, is culturally and linguistically distinct from the mainland. Hong Kongers speak Cantonese while mainlanders mostly speak some form of Mandarin; Hong Kong has a history as a British colonial outpost that China lacks; and Hong Kongers still generate far more income per capita than their mainland counterparts. In her column, Koon wrote, "In the face of unavoidable cultural differences, we" -- meaning Hong Kong residents -- "should have a tolerant heart" for mainlanders, because "we are all Chinese." Accordingly, Hong Kongers should not mock those who are "of their own kind." Koon compared the cultural schism with her experience of studying in the United Kingdom as a high school student, when she noticed that locals often laughed at her ignorance of social mores, like the unspoken requirement to hold back a burp after a satisfying meal.

Koon's column might sound uncontroversial to the politically correct. But correctness is not the order of the day in Hong Kong, where the opinion piece went over like a lead balloon: Netizens besieged Koon's Facebook fan page with messages of hatred and intolerance soon after the article's publication. (Koon's Facebook page, which has over 280,000 fans, was scrubbed of all content posted after Jan. 13, but the vitriol lives on in mirror sites, Chinese-language articles, and discussions elsewhere on Facebook.) Writing in webby English, one user, whose comment was typical, called for Koon to apologize for her column because "the Truth is, Chinese from The Red Soviet-China r intentionally invading us," (sic) an incursion which includes "raping the civilization we built." Hong Kongers also raged against the star for preaching tolerance for what users called mainland "locusts" who are "invading" Hong Kong and "taking its resources." Some took special offense at Koon's suggestion that Hong Kongers and mainlanders are "all Chinese."

Anti-mainland sentiment had been running high in Hong Kong, as the former British colony struggles to adjust to its status as a special Chinese city. The United Kingdom returned the city to the mainland in 1997, with the caveat that the city would continue to operate much as before for 50 years, before being fully absorbed into the much larger, Communist-controlled People's Republic. But many believe Beijing is going back on its word. Critics point to encroachment of Hong Kong's freedom of press, the lack of direct elections of Hong Kong's chief executive -- which presumably give Beijing greater opportunity to meddle -- and Beijing's control over Hong Kong's immigration policy. But ordinary Hong Kongers are more likely to be angry at the quotidian: Photographs of mainland tourists crowding city streets, eating on Hong Kong subway, or cutting in line regularly go viral on Hong Kong's social media. (The rancor goes both ways: Influential Chinese commentator Kong Qingdong infamously called Hong Kongers "dogs" in January 2012.)

Hong Kongers can at least be forgiven for feeling outnumbered. Approximately 40.7 million mainland tourists visited Hong Kong in 2013 -- more than five times Hong Kong's population of 7.2 million. While the Hong Kong government estimates that mainland tourists created more than 110,000 jobs in the region in 2012 alone, several surveys have shown that ordinary Hong Kongers do not believe that they have benefited from the influx. Instead, they resent mainland tourists for overcrowding subway cars, driving up commercial rents, and emptying store shelves of baby formula. New immigrants to Hong Kong face even more ire for taking jobs and the benefits given to residents, like school spots for children and hospital beds.

Koon's foray into Hong Kong-mainland relations proved a bit too much to handle; the star broke down in tears at a Jan. 27 public appearance under what mainland paper Guancha called "the pressure of public opinion." It's a force that is sure to have other would-be peacemakers on notice. Mainland Chinese will continue to flood into Hong Kong, but those seeking a warm welcome may want to wait a while. 

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