Skip to content Skip to navigation

Chinese legal

April 29, 1997

Recent legal reforms in China related to internal security represent the culmination of a ten-year effort to strengthen authoritarian controls and have ominous implications for Hong Kong, two human rights organizations said today. In a 50-page report, "Whose Security? State Security in China's New Criminal Code," Human RightsWatch/Asia and Human Rights in China examine the March 1997 decision by China's National People's Congress to remove the crime of "counter revolution" from the criminal code and replace it with "endangering state security." Far from being a move toward judicial liberalization, the change has served to broaden the capacity of the state to suppress dissent.

"For several years now, Chinese officials have been deliberately fueling hopes by Western leaders that the long-awaited removal of counter revolution' from the books would mean an end to China's institutionalized persecution of peaceful dissidents, religious activists, and supporters of non-violent nationalist movements," said Sidney Jones, executive director of Human Rights Watch/Asia. "But now that it's happened, it's clear that nothing has changed."

National security has long been invoked by authoritarian governments around the world as a pretext for suppressing freedom of expression and freedom of association, and China's new focus on state security may not bode well for those freedoms in Hong Kong. It comes as debate in HongKong heats up over amendments proposed by the office of the Chief-Executive designate, Tung Chee-hwa, that would restrict public processions and non-governmental associations on national security grounds. The fact that China's legislators have left the definition of "national security" entirely open to interpretation by the executive power, as this report shows, will be cold comfort to those fighting to protect Hong Kong's freedom after the July 1, 1997 transfer of sovereignty.

The new report notes several disturbing aspects of the security provisions of the newly revised criminal code. They include:

  • Punishment of contact with individuals and organizations outside China
    In the revised code, "colluding with institutions, organizations, or individuals outside China to harm state security is seen as essentially the same as "colluding with foreign powers," while giving information to any outsider is seen as analogous to obtaining or providing state secrets for an enemy. Actions which involve some foreign connection are subject to harsher punishments than those that are purely domestic, andthose inside and outside China who subsidize acts which endanger state security may be prosecuted and imprisoned.
  • Highlighting crimes of separatism
    Splitting the nation or sabotaging national unity has become a whole separate article in the new law, emphasizing the authorities' battle against separatist forces in places like Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia.
  • Increasing limits on freedom of expression
    The scope of what can be considered subversive, seditious or secessionist expression appears to be even broader than in the 1979 criminal code.

The clearest indicator that the recent legislative changes mean no substantive shift in the government's hardline approach toward those expressing critical viewpoints was that senior officials announced in advance that the several thousand people already serving prison terms for counter revolutionary offenses would not be eligible for any kind of amnesty or early release as a consequence of the criminal code "reforms." Even though the offenses for which they were jailed no longer exist, they will continue serving their sentences to the bitter end.

Human Rights in China and Human Rights Watch/Asia call on the Chinese government to promptly and unconditionally release all persons currently serving jail sentences under Article 98 ("organizing or participating ina counterrevolutionary group"), Article 99 ("using a reactionary sect or society to carry on counterrevolutionary activities") and Article 102("engaging in counter revolutionary propaganda and incitement") of the old criminal code, since those statutes targeted solely the exercise ofthe internationally-guaranteed rights to freedom of expression and association. The two human rights groups note that large-scale "special pardons" of this type have been carried out by the Chinese government in the past, and that July 1, 1997 would be a particularly suitable occasion for the granting of a similar official amnesty to China's political prisoner population. The organizations call for the establishment of a nationwide "Commission of Review" to re-examine all other cases of persons sentenced on charges of counter revolution, with a view to the exoneration and release prior to the fifth anniversary ofthe People's Republic of China on October 1, 1999 of all those found also to have been imprisoned solely on the grounds of the peaceful exercise of their rights to freedom of expression and association.

Copies of this publication are available from Human Rights Watch or Human Rights in China for $7.00 plus shipping.