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Canada and major powers tell China its new laws go too far

March 7, 2016

Globe & Mail, March 1, 2016 - The United States, Canada, Germany, Japan and the European Union have written to China to express concern over three new or planned laws, including one on counterterrorism, in a rare joint bid to pressure Beijing into taking their objections seriously.

The U.S., Canadian, German and Japanese ambassadors signed a letter dated Jan. 27 addressed to State Councilor and Minister of Public Security Guo Shengkun, voicing unease about the new counterterrorism law, the draft cyber security law, and a draft law on management of foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

In what sources said was a co-ordinated move, the ambassador of the European Union Delegation to China, Hans Dietmar Schweisgut, sent a letter expressing similar concerns, dated Jan. 28.

Reuters reviewed copies of both letters.

The cybersecurity and counterterrorism laws codify sweeping powers for the government to combat perceived threats, from widespread censorship to heightened control over certain technologies.

Critics of the counterterrorism legislation, for one, say that it could be interpreted in such a way that even non-violent dissidents could fall within its definition of terrorism.

The four ambassadors said areas of the counterterrorism law, which the National People’s Congress passed in December, were vague and could create a “climate of uncertainty” among investors. They did not specify which areas.

The EU ambassador used the same phrase to describe the law’s impact, and both letters expressed an interest in engaging with China as it worked out implementing regulations around the law, to try to mitigate those concerns.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei, asked about the letters, said all countries were enhancing their efforts to combat terrorism, and that he hoped other countries would respect China’s sovereignty.

“The counterterrorism law will not affect relevant businesses’ normal operations and it will not affect relevant personnel’s legitimate interests,” he told a daily news briefing, without elaborating.

Guo could not be reached for comment. China’s State Council Information Office and Ministry of Public Security did not respond to requests for comment.

While countries often give feedback on proposed legislation in China, the rare joint response by several major powers, and co-ordination with the EU, signals an increased readiness to lend weight of numbers to their argument.

It also points to growing frustration that the low-key, individual approach taken in the past may not be working.

“While we recognize the need for each country to address its security concerns, we believe the new legislative measures have the potential to impede commerce, stifle innovation, and infringe on China’s obligation to protect human rights in accordance with international law,” said a strongly-worded letter co-signed by the four ambassadors.

China has defended the new and draft laws, saying such steps, including heightened censorship, were necessary to ensure stability in the country of over 1.3 billion people.

The diplomatic push comes as Beijing arguably needs co-operation from the signatories to the letters more than ever.

A slowing Chinese economy and fragile markets highlight the importance of foreign investors’ confidence.

Chinese companies are increasingly looking to get approvals from foreign governments for acquisitions, and the European Union is debating whether to give China “market economy” status.

On the draft cyber security law, all five ambassadors were particularly concerned by provisions requiring companies to store data locally and to provide encryption keys, which technology firms worried may impinge on privacy and mean they would have to pass on sensitive intellectual property to the government in the name of security.

Both letters said the draft NGO management law had the potential to hinder academic exchanges and commercial activities, calling them “crucial elements” of their relationships with China.

Critics have said the draft legislation risked choking off NGOs’ work by requiring them to get official sponsors and giving broad powers to police to regulate their activities.

In the letters, the ambassadors asked China to open both draft laws to another round of public consultations.

The U.S. embassy in Beijing did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this article. A spokesman for the EU Delegation had no comment when reached by Reuters.

The German embassy declined to comment on the letter.

The Japanese embassy said: “We pay attention to Chinese movement over relevant laws or drafts of laws.”

A Canadian government spokesperson said Canada had expressed its concerns to China’s government “about a number of new laws and regulations that constrain civil society and hinder access to information.

“We have expressed these concerns through a variety of different approaches and will continue to raise these with the Chinese government,” the spokesperson added.

The parties to the letters decided to express their concerns together after it became unclear to what degree China was taking their individual input on the laws on board, said a person with knowledge of the matter.

“We’re trying to avoid the divide and conquer approach (by China). They like to do that on any possible occasion. We wanted to send a counter-signal that when we have shared interests, we cannot so easily be split,” the person said, adding that there had been no clear response by China so far to the letters.

“We don’t plan to establish a pen-pal relationship. We want something to happen.”

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