Human Rights in China (HRIC) has received information providing further details on the background of the arrest of journalist Zhao Yan, which exemplifies the pernicious effect of Chinese State Secrets Law as applied to journalists and civil society actors.
At the time of his arrest, Zhao Yan was working as a researcher for the Beijing bureau of the New York Times. Zhao is widely reported to have been detained on suspicion of leaking confidential information relating to Jiang Zemin’s resignation as Chairman of the Central Military Commission. More recently, HRIC received reports that the Chinese authorities also wished to prevent Zhao Yan from staging a hunger strike on behalf of peasant activist Zhang Youren, who is currently suffering serious illness while under residential surveillance.
The most recent information received by HRIC from a source in China provides further details of the intense pressure Zhao Yan experienced following publication of a report in The New York Times that Jiang Zemin had informed Party officials of his intention to resign as chairman of the Central Military Commission. The report was published on September 7, nearly two weeks before the official announcement of Jiang’s resignation on September 19. HRIC’s source quotes two sources he considers reliable as saying that President Hu Jintao personally ordered an investigation into the Times story.
A friend of Zhao Yan told HRIC that Zhao became increasingly convinced that state security authorities suspected him of having leaked the information to the Times. Zhao told this friend and others that the authorities had contacted him twice within three or four days, saying they wanted to meet with him to discuss the article. A source close to the New York Times said Zhao was not in fact the source of the information in the story, or even an active participant in the reporting process. However, Zhao was aware of the substance of the piece before it went to press and may have spoken with others about it. He expressed concern to a friend that state security authorities might associate him with the article in some way.
Zhao’s friend said that Zhao decided to take a vacation from his research position in order to “disappear” for a while, and left work for several days with his cell phone switched off. A friend that Zhao was traveling with in Shanghai said that after Zhao turned his phone back on, he was tracked down by state security within an hour and detained.
A source who has spoken with Zhao’s family says Zhao’s detention notification states that Zhao is in criminal detention under suspicion of leaking state secrets. This source says that since Zhao’s detention, a number of his friends have been interviewed by state security regarding Zhao’s connection to the New York Times and his relationship with Chinese government and military officials.
Due to the lack of transparency in China, it is difficult to definitively attribute Zhao’s detention to one specific activity. What is undisputed, however, is that like so many other journalists and independent civil society voices, Zhao Yan has fallen victim to the arbitrary application of State Secrets law as a means of clamping down on the expression and dissemination of views and information that incur the displeasure of the Chinese authorities.
The State Secrets provisions of China’s Criminal Law are an essential element in the government’s system of control over information. Information that can be classified as a state secret under these provisions does not have to be directly related to matters of national security, and can include any information that has not been officially vetted before publication. Administrative agencies also hold wide discretion in retroactively classifying information as a state secret on the grounds that the consequences of its disclosure have harmed or have the potential to harm the “security and interests of the state.”
Zhao Yan’s activities on behalf of peasants, both as a journalist and in his personal capacity, may have made him a target of official scrutiny over an extended period of time. The Chinese authorities have in recent years invoked State Secrets law against a wide range of civil society actors, including journalists, religious activists, and advocates of human rights and political reform. But the fact remains that it was Zhao Yan’s association with a news organization that provided the specific pretext for his detention on State Secrets grounds. “The use and misuse of State Secrets law has particularly severe implications for the ability of local and foreign journalists to do their work in China,” said HRIC president Liu Qing. “It produces an environment in which any controversial information can lead to the intimidation of Chinese journalists, and in particular those associated with foreign news organizations.”