BEIJING — A newly passed and wide-ranging anti-terrorism law that could force foreign tech firms to hand over sensitive information drew criticism Monday from business and human rights groups.
Beijing says the law is necessary to prevent terrorist attacks at home and abroad. But critics worry that it could be used to gain access to proprietary or personal information and may be used to muzzle critics.
The law has attracted pointed criticism from business and rights organizations since it was released in draft form. It also comes less than a week after a French journalist was ordered expelled for reporting on terrorism topics that angered Chinese authorities.
“While the Chinese authorities do have a legitimate duty in safeguarding their citizens from violent attacks, passing this law will have some negative repercussions for human rights,” said Patrick Poon, a Hong Kong-based researcher at Amnesty International.
“The definition of terrorism and extremism in this law is very vague, and ‘extremist’ behavior could include any criticism of policies, laws and regulations.”
In March, President Obama spoke out about draft provisions that would force foreign tech companies to give the Chinese authorities “backdoor” access to their products, share encryption codes and store data in China.
“We have made it very clear to them that this is something they are going to have to change if they are to do business with the United States,” Obama told the Reuters news agency.
The final version of the law seems to step back from those demands but still stipulates that companies must release “technical interfaces” and assist with decryption should security agencies deem it necessary to avert or investigate a terrorist attack — language unlikely to appease businesses.
Joerg Wuttke, president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, said that his group “recognizes the positive developments in terms of removing the language on encryption review and server-data localization in the final draft” but that it remains concerned about intellectual-property rights and censorship.
Chinese officials have cast the new rules as necessary and in line with what other countries, including the United States, are doing.
“Not only in China but also in many places internationally, growing numbers of terrorists are using the Internet to promote and incite terrorism, and are using the Internet to organize, plan and carry out terrorist acts,” said Li Shouwei, an official, at a news conference Sunday.
China has, for the most part, steered clear of expensive overseas military operations, preferring to focus on matters at home.
That may change. The new law allows for the People’s Liberation Army and armed police forces to “carry out counterterror missions overseas with the approval of the Central Military Commission,” according to Xinhua, a state news agency.
Other government bodies, including public security and national security authorities, could also send personnel abroad, Xinhua reported, though this type of mission would require approval by China’s State Council and “agreements signed with the countries concerned.”
It is not clear what type of missions are envisioned by Chinese authorities.
The passage of the bill comes amid a rancorous debate about how China defines terrorism and how it plans to fight it.
China’s top leaders maintain that the country is engaged in a domestic war on terrorism, including groups linked to a minority Muslim community, known as Uighurs, in the country’s far northwestern Xinjiang region. Foreign scholars and rights organizations question the extent to which local groups are linked to terrorists elsewhere. They counter that Uighur grievances are mostly about government-sanctioned repression — a charge Chinese authorities strongly oppose.
After the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Foreign Minister Wang Yi railed against a Western “double standard” on terrorism.
On Friday, China’s Foreign Ministry confirmed that a French journalist, Ursula Gauthier, will be expelled from China for questioning the official line on terrorism.
In a Nov. 18 essay, Gauthier said China’s post-Paris expression of solidarity had “ulterior motives,” namely a desire to secure support for its anti-terrorism plans at home. After a weeks-long smear campaign in the state-controlled press, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said her writing “emboldened” terrorists.
Gauthier’s expulsion will do little to curb concerns about the law’s potential impact on human rights.
The Chinese government keeps a tight grip on information about violent attacks. Reporters are often blocked from reporting in Xinjiang; the state-controlled media withholds details for weeks, or even months.
The anti-terrorism law also is troubling because it further criminalizes posting about terrorism online, said Amnesty’s Poon.
“This law could give the authorities even more tools in censoring unwelcome information and crafting their own narrative in how the ‘war on terror’ is being waged.”
Simon Denyer and Liu Liu contributed to this report.