top of page

China's State Secrets Laws: Tightening Control and Silencing Dissent in China and Hong Kong; By Annunthra Rangan

Updated: Mar 21

Pic courtesy: The Telegraph

Article: 9/2024


The State Secrets Law, initially enacted in 1988 and subsequently amended in 2010, underwent revisions to strengthen regulations concerning the collaboration between internet and telecommunications companies and law enforcement agencies in investigating state secrets breaches. This move was prompted by the Chinese Communist Party's recognition of the evolving challenges posed by advancements in science and technology, necessitating updates to maintain confidentiality standards, as stated by an official from the National Administration of State Secrets Protection. 

The annual legislative agenda has placed a heightened focus on national security, reflecting President Xi Jinping's increasing concerns regarding both internal and external threats amidst the intensifying global competition. China's enactment of the cybersecurity law in 2016 serves as a crucial component within its regulatory framework for major technology corporations. Over the past three years, Beijing has escalated its supervision of how companies manage user data, citing imperative national security reasons for these actions. Analysts propose that President Xi Jinping has positioned national security as a fundamental principle shaping governance across all realms of Chinese policymaking. 

The definition of "state secrets" in China is broad, covering topics that would typically be subject to public debate in other nations. The law defines state secrets as matters affecting the security and interests of the state, spanning from traditional national security issues to seemingly trivial subjects such as national statistics on death sentences. This expansive definition effectively prohibits public reporting or discussion of any political issue deemed unsuitable by CCP authorities. It is necessary that all state organs, armed forces, political parties, enterprises, and citizens have a legal obligation to protect state secrets. 

Legal action is mandated against any behaviour ( comments against PRC, unbiased reports by research organisations, etc) jeopardise the security of state secrets. State organs and units are responsible for managing secrecy within their jurisdictions, with central state organs overseeing corresponding systems. Organs and units must establish a responsibility system for secrecy work, appoint dedicated personnel, and implement secrecy management systems. Publicity and education on secrecy are emphasised to enhance societal awareness relating to China’s do’s and dont’s. 

State oversight includes inspections to ensure compliance with secrecy regulations. Secrecy work is integrated into economic and social development plans at the county level and above, with corresponding budget allocations. Since the introduction of a law aimed at protecting state secrets in 1988, China has seen numerous detentions, including those of prisoners of conscience and on charges related to such secrets. 

Last year, China approved a revised anti-espionage law that significantly broadened its scope in defining espionage activities, granting Beijing enhanced authority to address perceived threats to its national security. In addition, a state secrets law enacted introduced new classifications of sensitive information, including "work secrets" – data not designated as state secrets but possessing the potential to disrupt the regular functions of governmental bodies or organisational entities if disclosed. According to the amended law, any such breaches must be met with appropriate protective measures. 

Furthermore, the consequences for disclosing state secrets are severe. Punishments range from imprisonment to the death penalty, particularly for those accused of providing such information to entities outside China's borders. In recent years, individuals accused of leaking state secrets have received lengthy prison sentences, highlighting the severe repercussions of this legislation. Despite some releases, many individuals, including journalists, remain behind bars.  Amnesty International voices concern that this legislation is being abused to suppress public discussion on matters largely unrelated to national security, leading to the imprisonment of individuals exercising their legitimate rights to freedom of expression and association. Additionally, there are concerns about the unfair judicial procedures (long-term imprisonment and death sentences) faced by those charged with state secrets offences.

Proposed revisions concerning secrecy propaganda and education indicate an underlying sense of apprehension within the party-state. While the current draft law briefly addresses awareness and education for individuals involved in secrecy work, the amended version introduces measures to integrate secrecy propaganda and awareness into the national education and cadre-training systems. This suggests a broader initiative to enhance public awareness of the significance of secrecy work, as part of a larger campaign to cultivate a sense of responsibility for national security among Chinese citizens.

The recent expansion of China's state secrets law, the first since 2010, indicates a broadening of the scope of restricted information to include "work secrets." This development, as reported by Xinhua state news agency, arises against the backdrop of increasing concerns about national security under President Xi Jinping's leadership. Previous updates to anti-espionage laws further underscore this trend. It is a part of a broader trend towards heightened national security, potentially affecting business operations in China. Recent police actions against management consultancies and the detention of a Japanese pharmaceutical executive on espionage charges have exacerbated concerns among the foreign business community.

Apart from its implications for business, the expansion of the state secrets law intersects with broader geopolitical concerns, particularly regarding Hong Kong's autonomy. The ongoing public consultation period for a new national security law in Hong Kong has raised fears of further erosion of freedoms in the territory. The updated law now requires government agencies and work units to protect not only state secrets but also information that, if disclosed, could have adverse effects. However, details regarding the management of "work secrets" have yet to be disclosed, leading to uncertainty about its implementation. The inclusion of "work secrets" expands the already extensive reach of the law, prompting questions about its potential impact on various aspects of Chinese society and governance.

The amended law will result in heightened propaganda efforts by Chinese state media regarding the safeguarding of state secrets, alongside increased pressure on local governments to implement training and education initiatives focused on secrecy work. This heightened state of alertness is also evident in efforts to protect vital information pertaining to economic and technological advancements, particularly amidst deteriorating China-U.S. relations. Article 10 of the draft amendment underscores the importance of confidentiality in scientific and technological research and application, particularly in core technologies. It also advocates for innovative advancements in secrecy work itself. 

Qi Lin, a journalist who had previously been affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party, was incarcerated for a year under the legislation. His arrest in July 1991 was based on allegations of disclosing classified information, particularly regarding the disciplinary actions taken against Hu Jiwei, a former chief editor of the People's Daily, for his role in the 1989 pro-democracy movement. Despite the widespread awareness of this information within Chinese intellectual circles, Qi Lin underwent clandestine hearings and was ultimately handed a four-year prison sentence.

Among those targeted are journalists like Xi Yang, who was sentenced to 12 years' imprisonment for obtaining and publishing information deemed to constitute state secrets. Similarly, Bai Weiji and Zhao Lei received prison terms for allegedly providing state secrets to a foreign press correspondent. Despite lacking concrete evidence of their actions posing legitimate national security threats, these individuals faced secretive trials and harsh sentences. The case of Gao Yu, a renowned journalist, further illustrates the repression facilitated by the state secrets law. She was sentenced to six years' imprisonment after being charged with leaking state secrets, despite the information she allegedly leaked being widely known within China and even published by pro-communist newspapers in Hong Kong. 

Moreover, China expanded its counterespionage legislation, broadening the definition of espionage to encompass the sharing of documents, data, materials, and objects that impact national security and interests. These legal adjustments coincide with heightened scrutiny across various sectors of the economy. Notably, the finance industry has witnessed intensified anti-corruption measures targeting Chinese executives, while consulting and advisory firms with foreign affiliations faced regulatory actions under the revised counterespionage laws, including raids, detentions, and arrests. The crackdown has amplified the challenges of investing in China at a time when foreign direct investment in the country has fallen to its lowest levels in three decades, as companies are increasingly unwilling to endure the trade-offs of operating in China for an economy no longer growing by leaps and bounds. 

In addition to domestic enforcement, China has detained foreign executives on accusations of espionage and imposed travel restrictions to prevent their departure from the country. For instance, a British consultant disappeared in 2018 and was subsequently sentenced to a five-year prison term in 2022 for allegedly procuring and supplying intelligence to entities outside China, according to China's foreign ministry. China has also embarked on an educational campaign to raise awareness among its citizens regarding national security risks within the economy. The Ministry of State Security has developed an online comic series based on real espionage cases to illustrate these threats and underscore the importance of vigilance in safeguarding national interests. 

Hong Kong’s National Security Law: 

It's hardly surprising to observe Hong Kong's alignment with China's trajectory. Recent revisions to Hong Kong's legislation signal the revival of its National Security law, which had been temporarily set aside for a year. Hong Kong is on the brink of implementing its own rendition of a national security law, as dictated by Beijing, prompting concerns regarding potential further encroachments on civil liberties. A comprehensive draft of Article 23, encompassing offences such as treason, sedition, and handling state secrets, was unveiled. Notably, it includes provisions for closed-door trials and extends police detention rights to a period of two weeks without formal charges. Both Beijing and local authorities in Hong Kong attribute the efficacy of the security law to restoring “the so-called stability” in the aftermath of peaceful pro-democracy protests in 2019.

Additionally, the legislation grants the city's leader the authority to prescribe organisations and businesses found to be collaborating with foreign entities from operating within Hong Kong. Expanding upon the framework established by the existing Beijing-imposed national security law, the draft bill broadens its scope to cover a wider range of offences. These include theft of state secrets and espionage, with a detailed definition of "state secrets" encompassing various aspects of governance and external affairs, aligning closely with China's state secrets law. According to reports, more than 100 individuals have been apprehended under the 2020 Beijing-imposed law, which streamlined the prosecution of demonstrators and curtailed the city's autonomy. 

Furthermore, a new offence targeting acts of sabotage endangering national security is introduced, covering deliberate or reckless actions that pose a threat to national security, including cyber-related activities such as the dissemination of personal information ("doxxing") of law enforcement officers.

The legislation also addresses external interference, criminalising collaboration with foreign entities aimed at influencing or interfering with local authorities, including the receipt of financial support or direction from such external forces. Moreover, the bill addresses insurrection, aiming to prevent acts such as aiding armed forces engaged in conflict against China, partly in response to the unrest witnessed during the 2019 pro-democracy protests.

In addition to treason offences, the legislation seeks to penalise unauthorised military activities and the failure to report instances of treason, with severe consequences including potential life imprisonment for certain violations. Upon enactment, Article 23 will be integrated into Hong Kong's Basic Law, the foundational document governing the territory's governance framework which was passed by China after the British’s handover. .

Listing down are the few amendments in Hong Kong’s national security law: 

  1. Offences like secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign entities are punishable by life imprisonment.

  2. Actions that cause harm to public transportation facilities can be deemed as acts of terrorism.

  3.  Convicted individuals are ineligible to run for public office.

  4.  Companies found guilty may face fines.

  5. Some cases could be transferred to mainland China for trial, albeit on a limited basis.

  6. Hong Kong must establish its own national security commission, with a Beijing-appointed advisor.

  7. The chief executive gains authority to appoint judges for national security cases, prompting concerns about judicial independence.

  8. Beijing holds the power to interpret the law, superseding local interpretations, and in cases of conflict with Hong Kong laws, the Beijing law prevails.

  9. Certain trials will be held behind closed doors.

  10. Suspected offenders may be subject to wiretapping and surveillance.

  11. Regulations concerning foreign NGOs and news agencies will be strengthened.

  12. The law applies to both non-permanent residents and individuals from outside Hong Kong who lack permanent residency status.

The introduction of the new law provides authorities with an additional mechanism to suppress dissent and undermine the freedoms guaranteed to the former British colony upon its handover to Chinese administration in 1997. While purportedly enacted for necessary purposes, the underlying political agendas are evident. This national security legislation will intensify scrutiny on journalists and activists, potentially obstructing the dissemination of truth and the exposure of pertinent issues in Hong Kong. 


With such laws coming into power and is considered as the main decider of what is going happen to the civilians and the security of them, it is highly concerning and alarming to witness such changes that will change the course of journalists and other activists' lives altogether. With such developments to the laws, it is highly alarming to know China has further tightened its security which will make it even harder for the natives and as well as the international community to gain/get access to the actual information which will lead to a biassed analysis from an outsider perspective. This will further cause problems in the international scene and there is a high possibility of China noting it as “disinformation” or “propaganda against the PRC.” 

An analysis of China and Hong Kong's state secrets and national security laws reveals alarming trends in both regions, indicating a concerted effort to suppress dissent and tighten control over information dissemination. While both jurisdictions have implemented legislation ostensibly aimed at safeguarding national security, the methods and implications of these laws differ significantly, albeit with similar overarching goals.

The amendments to China's state secrets legislation, such as the inclusion of new classifications like "work secrets," underscore the government's efforts to expand its surveillance and control mechanisms, extending beyond traditional notions of national security to encompass everyday administrative functions. The lack of transparency surrounding judicial proceedings related to state secrets cases further compounds concerns regarding due process and the protection of individuals' rights.

In contrast, Hong Kong's National Security Law represents a consequential departure from the territory's previously cherished freedoms and autonomy. The legislation, imposed by Beijing in response to pro-democracy protests in 2019, introduces sweeping provisions targeting acts deemed threatening to national security, including secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign entities. The incorporation of Article 23 into Hong Kong's legal framework not only undermines the city's autonomy but also erodes the principles of free speech and expression enshrined in its Basic Law. The law's broad interpretation of offences related to national security, coupled with provisions allowing for closed-door trials and extensive surveillance measures, signals a troubling regression in Hong Kong's legal landscape.

Furthermore, the imposition of harsh penalties, including life imprisonment for certain offences, and the extension of Beijing's authority to interpret and enforce the law in conflict with local statutes, raise serious concerns about the erosion of judicial independence and the rule of law in Hong Kong.

In both China and Hong Kong, the state secrets and national security laws serve as tools for consolidating power and stifling dissent, under the guise of protecting national interests. However, the far-reaching implications of these laws extend beyond mere governance to encompass broader socio-political implications, including the suppression of free speech, erosion of civil liberties, and undermining of democratic principles. As such, international condemnation of these repressive measures is warranted, with a focus on advocating for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms in both jurisdictions.

But the strengthening of China’s national security laws has rattled many foreign businesses and investors. Many of the changes exercise an unclear and expansive criteria of what would constitute a national security risk, raising the possibility that the rules could be applied arbitrarily. In light of these developments, it is crucial for the international community to speak out against these repressive measures and advocate for the protection of human rights, civil liberties, and democratic values in China and Hong Kong.

(Ms. Annunthra Rangan is a research officer at C3S. The views expressed are those of the author and does not reflect the views of C3S.)


  1. AFP. (2024, March 8). Hong Kong unveils new national security law with tough penalties. The Hindu.

  2. Cai, Y. (2009, July 27). The long arm of the Chinese State Secrecy Law | East Asia Forum. East Asia Forum ; East Asia Forum .

  3. China Revises its State Secrets Law With Reforms That Include “Work Secrets.” (n.d.). Retrieved March 15, 2024, from

  4. CHINA State Secrets: A Pretext for Repression. (n.d.).

  5. Ramzy, A. (n.d.). China Expands State-Secrets Law, Highlighting Risks for Foreign Businesses. WSJ. Retrieved March 15, 2024, from

  6. Wei, C. (n.d.). Law on Guarding State Secrets. NPC Observer. Retrieved March 15, 2024, from

70 views0 comments