Beijing may be whittling back its widely reviled state secrets laws—but given their opacity, it’s hard to say for sure. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang signed a regulation, announced February 2, that would prohibit Chinese government organs from “using the law to classify those matters which should be made public,” according to state-run Xinhua news service. In an English-language article, Xinhua added that the regulation will “boost government transparency.” But China’s state secrets law remains still broad enough—and vague enough—to deny the Chinese public access to a surprisingly wide range of information.

It’s hard to criticize Li for pushing back against abuse of the law by wayward Chinese officials, who long ago discovered that they could bury incriminating material by classifying it as secret, or some variety thereof: top secret (where Chinese law says disclosure would cause “extremely serious harm”), highly secret, and secret. But the new language simply restates the flip side of the current law, which essentially says: Whatever should be secret shall be so labeled—trust us.

Even the current regulations issued by Chinese authorities about state secrets are opaque enough to keep the most conscientious rule-follower in the dark. In an August 2012 memorandum called “Traps for the Unwary in Disputes Involving China,” respected international law firm Jones Day seemed to throw up its hands, calling the law “as vague as it is broad.” If there is one thread running through this maze, it’s the unifying principle that Beijing is determined to keep information that it believes would rile the public under wraps. That lack of clarity is enough to scare off some journalists and public advocates; the Jones Day memorandum notes that in practice, the secrecy laws essentially allow authorities “almost unlimited discretion” to define a state secret. There’s no evidence that dynamic is about to change.

A report by NGO Human Rights in China, which translates some of the rules that classify information into different types of secrets, provides a glimpse into this confounding realm. (The report was authored in 2007, and it’s not entirely clear whether the cited rules remain on the books—Beijing does not appear to have publicly updated these classifications in recent years, although it revised the overall State Secrets Law in 2010 to expand its reach. That said, the report is an excellent exposition on the subject.) Among those pieces of information that Chinese law has labeled highly secret:

  • Undisclosed information and data on the handling of child labor cases nation-wide.
  • Plans and strategies for participating in meetings of international labor organizations.
  • Statistics from family planning departments regarding the number of induced abortions.

Meanwhile, among the merely secret:

  • Analyses of important trends in speeches or writings by ethnic minorities.
  • Reactions to important issues concerning the implementation of religious policies.
  • Compiled information and statistics held by the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, a massive state-run union, concerning worker unemployment and the financial hardships of workers.

Gathering, possessing, or disseminating these secrets can lead to criminal detention or imprisonment. Making matters worse, certain information not specifically labeled secret at the time it was disclosed can be retroactively classified as such. Anything that endangers the ability of the state to consolidate and defend its power is secret, for example—and its disclosure can be punished, even if it wasn’t considered dangerous at the time it was revealed. That means the law extends back in time, creating a dragnet with no discernible edges.

The change to the secrets law announced on February 2 reflects awareness that this vast discretion has been abused before. In one egregious example from August 2002, an AIDS activist was detained for sharing details of the spread of the disease in central Henan province; it turned out that as many as one million people in Henan had contracted the disease. And in February 2003, a health official in the southern province of Guangdong refused to share details about another headline-grabbing disease, the deadly Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, commonly known as SARS, under cover of the secrecy law. In February 2013, Chinese authorities withheld soil pollution data in the face of a citizen request by labeling it a state secret—as of December 2013, the results were still under lock and key.

Li’s move is better than nothing, as it may make it harder for government officials to exploit state secret laws for their own ends. But that doesn’t change the fundamental equation: The Chinese Communist Party remains prepared to invoke state secrets, and punish whistleblowers, in order to hide information it deems threatening to its rule.

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