1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Taiwan spooked by China's expanded state secrets law

Yuchen Li in Taipei
May 20, 2024

Many foreign businesses operating in China and Taiwan have raised concerns about Beijing's recently revised state secrets law.

A Chinese national flag flutters near the surveillance cameras mounted on a lamp post in Tiananmen Square in Beijing
China's revised state secrets law expands the definition of such sensitive information to include a new category known as 'work secrets'Image: Andy Wong/AP Photo/picture alliance

China's expanded Law on the Guarding of State Secrets, which lawmakers passed in February, took effect on May 1 to align with Chinese President Xi Jinping's recent efforts to broaden national security-driven regulations.

The law, which was initially adopted in the 1980s, now has an expanded definition of "sensitive information" and tightened control over social media posts.

Where's the red line?

Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), which handles cross-Strait affairs, said that the expanded legislation was "highly vague and may cause people to break the law at any time."

The expanded law means the risk to people from Taiwan visiting China is likely to "increase significantly," according to an MAC statement. 

"You never know where the red line is," said Tao Yi-chun, an assistant professor of sociology at Taiwan's National Tsing Hua University in Hsinchu. 

"What is considered a secret?" Tao asked. "This is a very broad and vague restriction, and in most cases, many things can be interpreted in different ways."

The Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China
China's revised Law on Guarding State Secrets, passed by Chinese lawmakers in February, came into force on May 1Image: ASSOCIATED PRESS/picture alliance

Tao, who specializes in contemporary Chinese studies, has made several visits to China to conduct field surveys. But the amendment prompted Taiwanese authorities to urge the people from the island to "carefully assess whether travel to mainland China is necessary."

They warned that Beijing could deem any data collected "harmful" — even if it is intended for journalism, academic research, business investment inquiries or "just a casual conversation with locals."

Beijing considers self-ruled Taiwan to be Chinese territory, and Xi has made "reuniting" the democratic island with mainland China a long-running centerpiece of his strategic policy.

'Work secrets'

The state secrets law, which was first revised in 2010, now further extends the scope of restrictions to "work secrets."

According to the legislation, "work secrets" refer to information not categorized as state secrets but prone to "cause a definite adverse impact after leaking."

In addition, the law requires "network operators" to assist in investigations into social media posts involved in suspected leaks, including removing, saving records and reporting them to authorities.

"Public sentiment is, of course, crucial data that must be firmly controlled by the [Chinese] government," Tao told DW.

While Chinese internet companies already face strict regulations, the latest changes are believed to have reached a new level of self-monitoring and cooperation with authorities.

China-Taiwan conflict: A threat to the global economy

'No one can guarantee who's absolutely safe'

Chinese officials said in February that the improvement of the law is "to better address the new situations and tasks" as domestic and international conditions have profoundly changed.

However, Taiwan's MAC noted that when this type of "vague provision" lacks clear guidelines, it is "not uncommon" for Taiwanese and other foreign nationals to be "falsely accused" while participating in exchange activities in mainland China.

Lee Ming-che, a prominent Taiwanese human rights activist, told DW that Beijing is simply "legalizing" what it had been doing and turned the law into a weapon to "divide its own people and create external enemies."

In 2017, Lee was found guilty of criticizing the Chinese government and put behind bars for five years in China under the crime of "subverting state power." His case, at the time, sparked a widespread chilling effect among activists on the island.

"No one can guarantee who is absolutely safe," Lee told DW, as the latest revisions again aim to cover a wide range of issues that provide room for interpretation.

Academic exchanges now involve more caution

Last week, China's State Security Ministry announced that a professor from an unnamed country "illegally collected" data from a local national about wetland reserves and forest areas "in the name of academic cooperation."

With Beijing's constant attempts to bolster its legal tools for national security, Professor Tao admitted to feeling "concerned." Now, he usually visits China by official invitation and avoids bringing his private cell phone and laptop.

Tao also no longer insists that his students' dissertations must include field surveys in China but emphasized that he still "encourages" — or at least "doesn't oppose" — students traveling there to take a look around.

By enacting vague regulations, China's Xi hopes to create an environment where "everyone suspects, reports and competes against each other," Tao said.

Taiwanese businessman tells of 4-year imprisonment in China

Are young people in Taiwan worried?

In 2023, cultural and academic exchanges between university students from both sides resumed after China lifted its COVID-19 pandemic-related restrictions.

The low-cost, packaged tours have attracted young people who want to learn more about China. With groups of around 30-40 people, they will have an opportunity to visit different provinces for sightseeing or industrial tours.

Chen Yu-wei, a former student union president of Taiwan's National Cheng Kung University, went to Macau and Beijing with a tour group from 2018 to 2019.

Not too concerned by the newly revised law, Chen believes Chinese authorities are less likely to target students during such a trip because the purpose is to deliver a positive image of cross-strait exchanges.

A Taiwanese university student who went on another group tour to China only a year ago told DW that he would not dare to visit the country alone. The student, who asked not to be named, claimed that a "propaganda video" discussing state secrets was already played on the plane bound for China.

"In hindsight, it's evident that the [Communist] party had been laying the groundwork for a long time," he said.

But for young people like him and Chen, China is considered a place with no rule of law. Whatever new provisions are put in place, "if China wants to catch you, they can find a way," Chen said.

DW correspondent Yu-Chun Chou contributed to the report

Edited by: Keith Walker

Before you leave: Every Friday, the DW Asia newsletter delivers compelling articles and videos from around the continent right to your inbox. Subscribe below.