China recently published its new Anti-Terrorism Law which will take effect in January 2016. However, the law, which provides a legal framework for China to combat terrorism, received strong criticism from western media. In contrast, Chinese media considered this response as a double standard on China’s effort to combat terrorism. Who is right?
Let’s first take a look at the line of criticism. Most of the negative responses focused on one technological provision in the new law which requires firms to assist Chinese security authorities to prevent and investigate terrorism by providing technical support such as interface technology and encryption keys. According to western media, this technological provision will provide the Chinese government with backdoor access to sensitive information which raises the concern of undermining the intellectual property rights of foreign companies, discouraging foreign investment, and other human rights issues such as freedom of speech.
From the Chinese perspective, these concerns are over-exaggerated because the requirements in the current technological provision are no more stringent than those in major western countries such as the US, UK, Germany and the Netherlands. Indeed, in the draft Anti-terrorism Law, there was a provision including much more stringent rules requiring internet services providers to locate their servers and store all user data in China. After considering public opinion, China’s legislative body decided to delete this controversial provision in the new law.
However, the mere fact that China is going to apply a similar rule on technical requirements as its western counterparts may not be a good justification for current technological provision. The major reason is that the similar requirements in those western countries are also subject to criticism. For example, Apple has recently showed its concern that the technological requirements in the UK government’s investigatory powers bill may create backdoors to weaken the protection of consumers and called for changes at the end of last year.
But it should be noted that, compared to its western counterparts, the Chinese government faced the more serious accusation that China may abuse the technological provision for various illegitimate purposes such as monitoring peaceful citizens and stealing intellectual property rights of foreign firms. In this sense, there is doubt about the Chinese government’s intention to combat terrorism instead of a double standard on China’s new Anti-Terrorism Law itself. But are such doubts reasonable?
Admittedly, the language of the current technological provision does provide much leeway for Chinese security authorities. Therefore, an urgent task for the Chinese government is to publish detailed supplementary rules to clarify situations where those authorities may request companies to provide technical assistance. In the meantime, western media should also respect China’s definition of terrorism. Otherwise, a reasonable doubt on the abuse of authority may upgrade to become a double standard on terrorism.