By CHRISTOPHER BODEEN, Associated Press
SHANGHAI, China – China’s extensive effort to designate and protect state secrets undermines its international commitments and hamstrings its legal system, a human rights group said Monday.
China’s constitution and laws provide for freedom of expression and the right to criticize the government, but those provisions are routinely violated, often by authorities invoking rules governing state secrets, Human Rights in China said in a report.
The network of regulations “undermines both domestic law and (China’s) international legal obligations,” the New York-based group said.
“The internal contradictions and tensions in domestic law provisions, and the failure to consistently implement international norms, also undermine the development of a functioning and coherent rule of law,” said the report, titled “State Secrets: China’s Legal Labyrinth.”
China’s 1988 law on protection of state secrets contains an article defining secrets as “all other matters classified as state secrets by the national State Secrets Bureau.”
That “catchall phrase” gives the government “unlimited and unlegislated power to classify as a state secret virtually any information that it deems could harm the ‘security and interests of the state,’” the report said.
Categories of secrets include information concerning government, defense and the economy, but also such seemingly mundane topics as environmental protection and even family planning. The State Secrets Bureau in Beijing designates state secrets, with no recourse for appeal in the courts or other branches of government. The bureau has branches at all levels of government dedicated to preventing the free flow of information.
The human rights group said China’s secrets system violates theInternational Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Beijing has signed but not ratified, along with other treaties and the proceedings of the U.N. Human Rights Council.
The system also undermines government transparency and the fairness of the legal system, worsening corruption, government malfeasance and cover-ups, and reducing accountability, the report said. The rules are frequently used to jail whistle-blowers, journalists, independent scholars and religious activists, it said.
“The very rights that (China) undertakes to uphold through the international framework are undermined by the comprehensive state secrets system,” the report said.
The system “perpetuates a culture of secrecy that is not only harmful but deadly to Chinese society,” it said.
Cases cited in the report include:
• The 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome. Chinese officials at first refused to provide information or confirm reports, pointing to rules classifying infectious diseases as state secrets.
• A November 2005 chemical leak in the Songhua River that forced the shutting off of taps in a city of 9 million people. Ambiguities in secrecy rules covering industrial accidents led to delays and confusion in reporting the accident.
• Prominent sociologist Lu Jianhua, reportedly sentenced to 20 years in prison for leaking state secrets to a Hong Kong reporter who was sentenced to five years for spying. Human rights groups have questioned the evidence in the reporter’s case, but Lu’s trial was held in secret.
• Academic Tohti Tunyaz, sentenced to 11 years for spying and “splittism.” Supporters say the secrets he was accused of stealing were 50-year-old government documents.
• Journalist Shi Tao, sentenced to 10 years in prison after e-mailing the contents of a government propaganda circular to a human rights forum in the United States. Shi was accused of “illegally providing state secrets overseas.”
China’s rules are especially dangerous because the government can declare something a secret even after it has been published or otherwise becomes known, the report said.
It gave a mixed review to the only publicized move by the secrets bureau to declassify an entire category of information. In 2005, the bureau announced with great fanfare that casualty tolls from natural disasters would no longer be considered secret.
However, the announcement’s effect was blunted by confusion over the definition of natural disasters as opposed to man-made ones. Meanwhile, new rules were implemented fining media outlets for reporting on disasters without government authorization, the report said.