State Secrets Amendment a Glimpse at the Totalitarian Mindset

May 4, 2010 Updated: October 1, 2015

What's a state secret in China? (Feng Li/Getty Images)
What's a state secret in China? (Feng Li/Getty Images)
To show that dictatorships tell lies and pretend they are not lies, the Chinese Communist Party’s amendment to its state secrets law last week could furnish no better example.

The amendment provides a definition of “state secrets” that gives the CCP an enormous amount of wiggle room when cracking down on dissent—as though any more were needed. A state secret was newly defined as “information concerning national security and interests that, if released, would harm the country’s security and interests.” Putting the term “interests” in the law in this way makes it boundless in application: anything could affect the state’s interests.

Further, the law requires telecom operators and internet service providers in China to cooperate with security forces on possible leaks of state secrets. Such “leaks” may include, for example, a human rights activist uploading video of police brutality or religious persecution, or bloggers uploading pictures of a protest against the Party-state. The move to enlist third parties in the struggle against dissent is redolent of Chinese communism in general and Maoism in particular, which is not satisfied merely to dictate the terms of public life and destroy recalcitrance, but needs to implicate the population and make non-acceptance of state doctrine itself a crime.

Since companies operating in China are already expected or made to cooperate with security forces, the purpose of the amendment is not exactly clear. It indicates either that they are now to take a more proactive role in assisting the authorities to spy on dissidents, or is meant merely as a legal veneer for further controlling speech.

This is the opinion of Zhou Shiyu, Deputy Director of the Global Internet Freedom Consortium, one of the groups most successful in circumventing the CCP’s Internet firewall. “The problem has been that the definition of state secret is given by the Party according to its needs, not through a due process,” he wrote in an email to The Epoch Times. “Disagreement with Party policy, a revelation of corruption, exposure of social unfairness, etc., all may be taken as state secrets. The result is nothing but strengthening the control of people’s thoughts and expressions,” he wrote.

Of course the CCP knows this, too. That is precisely the point of the law. The elaborate commentaries and explanations that followed in domestic state media, often with cute cartoons to illustrate the point, are archetypal of this totalitarian trope.

The cultural critic Theodore Dalrymple refers to a nineteenth-century French aristocrat, the Marquis de Custine, who in 1843 published a series of letters under the title “La Russie en 1839.” They explicate clearly the totalitarian mindset, which was exemplified in an incident he witnessed soon after arriving in Russia.

Custine was attending an annual festival at the palace of Peterhof, which visitors arrived at by boat from Saint Petersberg. A boat had sunk in a storm on the way to the festival, with all on board perishing. The incident was not discussed publicly, producing “a silence more terrifying than the disaster itself.” This is because the dictatorship is supposed to be at once all-powerful and omnibenevolent (in China the decisions made by the party are the decisions of the People), a state incompatible with disasters befalling innocents. To square the circle, everyone must pretend nothing happened. Thus, “any mishap is treated as an affair of State,” as Custine put it, so “to lie is to protect the social order, [and] to speak the truth is to destroy the State.”

Thus, the elite of the CCP are the most consummate liars. They make laws that are obviously no more than codified tools of repression, but pretend that they are for the benefit of the people. The updated state secrets legislation was dripping with such sentiments. The CCP is so good at lying because it knows what is at stake if it tells the truth.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.