China’s top legislature said in a report on May 25 it will prioritize public health legislation this year, as well as formulate laws on biosecurity, personal information protection and data security, which analysts believe is intended to plug the loopholes exposed by China’s COVID-19 response.
The main task of China’s top legislature in the next phase will be to formulate laws concerning national security and social management, including a biosecurity law, a personal information protection law and data security law, according to the report of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC), delivered by the committee’s chairman Li Zhanshu to the third session of the 13th NPC.
The NPC Standing Committee also plans to revise the wildlife protection law, the law on the prevention and control of infectious diseases, the frontier health and quarantine law and the emergency response law, according to the report.
China’s draft biosecurity law, which was submitted for its second review in late April, focused on preventing and responding to biological threats, safeguarding people’s lives and health, promoting the sound development of biotechnology and protecting biological resources and the ecological environment.
The COVID-19 pandemic highlights the importance of biosecurity, which has been included in China’s national security system. Chinese military experts have suggested China establish a permanent national defense force on biosecurity to efficiently deal with a biological disaster or even potential warfare.
The draft also said that a monitoring and early warning system should be put in place to prevent and control major new or sudden outbreaks of infectious diseases and epidemics related to animals and plants.
Liu Changqiu, an associate researcher at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times on Monday that although China had revised several laws after the SARS crisis of 2003, the pandemic revealed problems and gaps in implementation and supervision, as some existing laws have different regulations on who is responsible for the same issue.
For example, China’s infectious disease prevention control law states that local medical institutes should report and manage an epidemic, but, according to the law on emergency response, local governments should report and coordinate the response to a public health emergency, Liu said.
He predicted that the top legislature would clarify who should take responsibility for responding to a public health emergency – whether the local government or local disease control departments – to facilitate the emergency response procedure.
Meanwhile, analysts said that governments at all levels should leave the scientific assessment of the epidemic to professionals.
“These revisions to the laws will be more systematic and coordinated,” Liu said, noting that punishment for violators would probably be increased.
Regulations to protect whistleblowers in a public health emergency, such as Wuhan doctor Li Wenliang who tried to report on the coronavirus in the early stages of the pandemic, are likely to be included in future laws.
Li was one of the eight “whistleblowers” who attempted to warn other medics of the coronavirus outbreak but were reprimanded by local police. He died as a result of the coronavirus infection on February 7, which led to an outpouring of grief and anger.
As they combated the disease, Chinese governments at local levels collected residents’ personal information, travel and medical history to screen those who had close contacts with people from worst-hit regions, and set up applications based on big data to enable safe work resumption, which highlights the significance of personal data protection, experts said.
The top legislature’s key tasks in the next phase have combined national security and people’s needs, as reflected in China’s COVID-19 response this year, Qin An, head of the Beijing-based Institute of China Cyberspace Strategy, told the Global Times on May 25.
The country needs a data security law to protect and improve China’s ability in detecting and handling data theft and cyber attacks in the future, especially when dealing with a major public health crisis, Qin said.
Chinese online security firm 360 said that hackers from India and Vietnam have been attacking China’s key medical institutions in order to steal information and data related to COVID-19, according to a statement 360 sent to the Global Times.
Attacks against medical systems may lead to wider spread of the virus, public panic, social chaos and the information stolen may be used for biological weapons attacks, analysts said.