by Xinhua writers Li Huizi, Cheng Zhuo
BEIJING, April 29 (Xinhua) -- China's parliament on Thursday adopted a revision to the Law on Guarding State Secrets which narrowed the definition of "state secrets," in an effort to boost transparency.
The amended law was approved by lawmakers at the end of the four-day bimonthly session of the National People's Congress (NPC) Standing Committee, or the top legislature, after three reviews, the first of which began last June.
State secrets have a clearer definition in the amended law. They are defined as information concerning state security and interests and, if leaked, would damage state security and interests in the areas of politics, economy and national defense, among others.
It also raises the level of government departments that can classify information a state secret.
The National Administration for the Protection of State Secrets and local bureaus above the county level are responsible for national and local classification, respectively.
Prof. Wang Xixin at Peking University Law School said the number of state secrets will decline as fewer levels of government departments have the power to classify information as a state secret.
"It will help boost government transparency," Wang said.
Local officials often use the excuse "state secrets" to avoid answering inquiries from the public properly.
After the amended law takes effect in October, governments under the county level will have to respond to public questioning with more openness and without the power to classify information as a state secret, Wang said.
According to the amended law, there will be more complicated but standardized procedures to classify information a state secret which will eliminate "random classification."
The amended law also grants more responsibility to classification departments and units, which will be penalized if they do not properly classify information.
It also defines secrecy levels and authority limits, and clarifies time limits for differing levels of confidentiality and conditions for declassification.
It says the time limit for keeping top-level secrets should be no more than 30 years; no more than 20 years for low-level state secrets; and at most 10 years for ordinary state secrets.
Wang said reducing the number of state secrets will improve state secrets protection, as "the protection work would be difficult if there are many state secrets, and more manpower and resources would be used."
"The more state secrets, the 'number' the public will be," he said.
He said the revision to the law also enhances China's image on the international stage, as the country should narrow the gamut of state secret as it conducts increased international exchange.
The call to amend the state secrets law strengthened when the State Council issued a regulation on government transparency in May 2008 which said "a broad definition for state secrets" is not in line with the public's right to know.
The rapid development of the Internet poses great challenges to the protection of state secrets, with Internet leaks of confidential information frequently occurring, observers say.
The amended law requires Internet operators and other public information network service providers to cooperate with public and state security departments and prosecutors in probes of state secret leaks.
Prof. Wang said, "Such stipulations are necessary," as fast information transmission can easily cause leaks of state secrets and many countries have similar requirements on network operators.
"If a sensitive photo is put online, people see it and they may obtain state secrets from it. That's very simple. But people cannot judge whether it is a state secret or not. They may take for granted the information has already been released by the government," he said.
"Information transmissions must be immediately stopped if they are found to contain state secrets, and once a leak has been discovered, records should be kept and it must be reported to the public security and state security departments in charge of confidentiality.
"The information relating to state secrets should be removed according to orders of relative departments," the amendment says.
Wang said efforts must be made to ensure such clauses are not abused by authorities to invade citizens' privacy.
He added more specific measures should be enacted to implement the rules.
"It should be carried out without harming the openness of the Internet," he said.