Last week Chinese state media revealed new rules regarding state secrets. The changes decree, among other things, that government departments 'must not define as a state secret information which by law ought to be public.' Translation: officials can no longer cry 'state secret' to cover up their dirty laundry. 

The law was last amended in 2010. That revision narrowed the definition of secrets and required internet operators to cooperate 'in probes of state secret leaks.' At the time the move was seen as a boost to government transparency. Xinhua noted then that 'local officials often use the excuse of "state secrets" to avoid answering inquiries from the public properly.' Four years later, the new amendment aims to tackle the same problem. 

The exact scope of China’s state secrecy laws are, rather fittingly, something of a mystery. They came into effect on 1 May 1989. State secrets are defined as 'matters related to state security and national interests.' Article 9 of the law stipulates seven types of state secrets, including 'national economic and social development' and 'other secret matters', a catch-all caveat used to justify many a cover-up and arrest in the following years. 

Occasionally, unwitting saboteurs are caught out by the law. 

In 2004, for instance, university administrator Shi Xiaolong received three years imprisonment for leaking state secrets. His crime was passing on a college English examination to a teacher. In 2006 Tan Kai, a computer technician, received an 18 month sentence for backing up files while repairing the computer of an employee of the Zhejiang provincial party committee. The NGO Human Rights in China asserts that the secrecy laws were used as a pretext for his arrest; the real reason was his involvement in an environmental watchdog. Reports on environmental pollution have at other times also been classified as 'state secrets.'

Cover-ups perpetrated in the name of the secrecy laws have been far more serious. A quick role call would include:

  • AIDS/HIV: When the first cases of HIV were discovered among blood sellers in Henan in 1994, health authorities hid the information. Foreign and domestic journalists seeking to visit the province were detained or expelled. In 2002 activist Wan Yanhai was detained for a month on state secrets charges for making available a government report on the spread of the virus.
  • SARS: The first cases appeared on the mainland in November 2002. In February 2003 a Guangdong health official refused to reveal information on the spread of the disease to officials in Hong Kong, citing infectious diseases as state secrets. As SARS reached Beijing in April 2003 a PRC health minister initially claimed the disease was under control on the mainland.
  • The 2011 Wenzhou Train Crash: when one train car was buried within hours of the crash, authorities faced charges of hiding evidence. The official response was that this was done to safeguard state technical secrets. An online poll revealed only 2% of the public believed this claim. The crash later became a symbol of corruption

These cover-ups share a common feature: they intended to hide official malpractice. In each case, officials rationalised that exposing the disaster would threaten the government's legitimacy. Attempting a cover-up was a 'safer' bet. But cover-ups have become increasingly difficult to pull off as the internet has turned every citizen into a reporter. The AIDS/HIV cover-up lasted for years. For SARS, it lasted months. The Wenzhou cover-up lasted a few hours. 

The revisions to the secrecy laws last week indicate the government has clued on to the fact that covering up malpractice is now a greater threat to its legitimacy than malpractice itself. 

Photo by Flickr user Cheo70.