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Secretary Yellen visits China as counter-espionage act comes into effect

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen arrived in China today to meet with top officials there. Her visit comes amid rising tensions between the two countries over issues like trade, national security concerns and Taiwan. But it is also taking place just as a new counterespionage law has gone into effect in China. And it's raised concerns - so much so that the U.S. government has warned Americans about the increased risk of doing business there.

To discuss, we've called Thomas Kellogg. He's executive director of the Center for Asian Law at Georgetown University, where he specializes in Chinese law. Welcome to the show.

THOMAS KELLOGG: Thanks. Great to be here.

DETROW: So the new law went into effect on July 1. Can you give us a couple of the main things we should know about some of the major changes that this is putting into place?

KELLOGG: Sure. I mean, one thing I'd say right off the bat is that this law is an expansion of an existing law. So what it does is expand the definition of espionage under Chinese law so that all sorts of garden-variety business activities, journalistic activities and even educational activities could be called espionage under the law. That, in and of itself, is very concerning. But then on top of that, you have expanded investigatory powers so that businesses operating in China could find their offices raided, could find their phones being searched, could find their business files being examined or even find state security agents conducting an investigation out of their own offices. So this is a big deal.

DETROW: We've certainly seen so many examples of Americans detained in Russia under very suspect reasons. There has been such an increase in tensions between the U.S. and China. Should individual Americans be concerned about how this new law could be applied to them - especially, you know, people like journalists?

KELLOGG: Absolutely. So we have, in the law, provisions related to what are called exit bans, and that means that individuals who are caught up in an espionage investigation can be barred from leaving China for almost an indefinite period. And this is something that has happened to a small but growing number of Americans - and especially American businesspeople - over the years. So that's one provision of the law to watch out for. It's also not out of the question that individuals could be detained under the law. And if China believes that there is grounds there, they could be criminally prosecuted.

DETROW: Any sense yet about whether China would try to enforce this law outside of its borders?

KELLOGG: That point is not yet clear. I think the main thrust of the law is to focus on activities inside China and U.S. businesses and other entities operating inside China. But as we have seen from recent events in Hong Kong, including the issuance of arrest warrants against eight overseas individuals for violations of Hong Kong's national security law, that is the kind of thing that is very worrying and makes one wonder whether this law, too, would be applied overseas.

DETROW: Is there a counterpoint here, though? Because, I mean, I'm certain that many countries, the U.S. included, are aggressively spying on China, conducting operations within China. The U.S. has pretty strong counterespionage laws and counterespionage efforts. Does China have a right to have a law like this in place to try and respond to operations that are taking place?

KELLOGG: By no means am I suggesting that China is not going to or doesn't have the right to take espionage actions by the United States seriously. It's a question of whether other actions - business research, normal journalistic activity, even educational research and activity - could be swept up by this law. That's the real problem here.

DETROW: We mentioned at the top that Secretary Janet Yellen is in China right now for a four-day visit. Do you expect this to come up directly?

KELLOGG: I hope she does raise it because it does have a real impact on U.S. businesses operating in Hong Kong. And I think it's an excellent opportunity for Secretary Yellen to reinforce that message with some of the high-level contacts that she is meeting with during her visit. So I hope and expect that will happen.

DETROW: That was Thomas Kellogg. He's the executive director of the Center for Asian Law at Georgetown University. Thanks so much.

KELLOGG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.