On 28 June 2023, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s top legislative body, promulgated the Foreign Relations Law, after a draft was released in December 2022. In a welcomed move, an English version of this law has been made available online on the National People’s Congress website – find it here.
The law is focused on setting out broad principles for foreign relations and diplomacy by China’s leaders, organs and diplomats. For example, it states that the President “represents the People’s Republic of China, conducts affairs of state, and exercises functions and powers relating to foreign relations pursuant to the Constitution and other laws”, whilst the State Council “manages foreign affairs, concludes treaties and agreements with foreign countries, and exercises functions and powers relating to foreign relations pursuant to the Constitution and other laws.”
The Central Military Commission and Ministry of Foreign Affairs are also mentioned of course – it states that the Central Military Commission “organizes and conducts international military exchanges and cooperation and exercises functions and powers relating to foreign relations pursuant to the Constitution and other laws”, whilst the Ministry of Foreign Affairs “conducts foreign affairs in accordance with the law and undertakes matters relating to diplomatic exchanges of Party and State leaders with foreign leaders. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs enhances guidance, coordination, management and service for international exchanges and cooperation conducted by other government departments and localities.”
Given many provinces and larger cities in China have become active of late in international relations and diplomacy (for example, Zhejiang province has recently moved forward in developing relations with the Hong Kong SAR), it was settling to see that the law has recognised their ability to engage in such activities – Article 16 of the law states that “Provinces, autonomous regions and cities directly under central government jurisdiction shall carry out international exchanges and cooperation within the specific scope of mandate authorized by the central authorities. People’s governments of provinces, autonomous regions and cities directly under central government jurisdiction shall manage matters relating to international exchanges and cooperation in areas under their administration in accordance with their functions and powers.” We expect to see limits to their engagement discussed in the near future though.
Article 33 of this law has attracted significant media and commentator attention:
“Article 33 The People’s Republic of China has the right to take, as called for, measures to counter or take restrictive measures against acts that endanger its sovereignty, national security and development interests in violation of international law or fundamental norms governing international relations.
The State Council and its departments adopt administrative regulations and departmental rules as necessary, establish related working institutions and mechanisms, and strengthen inter-departmental coordination and cooperation to adopt and enforce measures mentioned in the preceding paragraph.Decisions made pursuant to the first and second paragraphs of this Article are final.”
Concerns have been raised as to this provision allowing unchecked government action against individuals, organisations and foreign governments. It certainly is potentially very wide in its application and without court oversight, concerns may well be justified. It is hoped that the State Council and other government organs will introduce clarifying guidelines, regulations and interpretations over the coming months, in order to put these concerns at ease to some extent.