China’s parliament passed a controversial new anti-terrorism law on Sunday that requires technology firms to hand over sensitive information such as encryption keys to the government and allows the military to venture overseas on counter-terror operations.
Chinese officials say their country faces a growing threat from terrorists and separatists, especially in its unruly Western region of Xinjiang, where hundreds have died in violence in the past few years.
An Weixing, head of the Public Security Ministry’s counter-terrorism division, says China faces a serious threat from terrorists, especially “East Turkestan” forces, China’s general term for Islamist separatists whom they say operate in Xinjiang.
“Terrorism is the public enemy of mankind, and the Chinese government will oppose all forms of terrorism,” An stated.
Rights groups, though, doubt the existence of a cohesive terror group in Xinjiang and say the unrest mostly stems from anger among the region’s Muslim Uighur people over restrictions on their religion and culture.
The law has raised deep concern in Western capitals, not only because of worries that it could violate human rights such as freedom of speech, but because of the cyber provisions. U.S. President Barack Obama has said that he had raised concerns about the law directly with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Officials in Washington have argued that the law, combined with new draft banking and insurance rules and a slew of anti-trust investigations, amounts to unfair regulatory pressure targeting foreign companies.
Speaking after China’s largely rubber-stamp parliament passed the law, Li Shouwei, deputy head of the parliament’s criminal law division under the legislative affairs committee, said China was simply doing what other Western nations already do, by asking technology firms to help fight terror. “This rule accords with the actual work need of fighting terrorism and is basically the same as what other major countries in the world do,” Li told reporters. He added that this law will not affect the normal operation of technology companies and they have nothing to fear in terms of having “backdoors” installed or losing intellectual property rights.
China’s national security law adopted in July requires all key network infrastructure and information systems to be “secure and controllable.”
The anti-terrorism law also permits the People’s Liberation Army to get involved in anti-terrorism operations overseas, though experts have said China would face big logistical and diplomatic challenges if it ever wanted to do that.
The new law also restricts the right of media to report on details of terror attacks, including a provision that media and social media cannot report on details of terror activities in a way that might lead to imitation, nor show scenes that are “cruel and inhuman.”