September 23, 2021

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Impact Of The New China Data Security Law For International Investors And Businesses – Privacy

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I. Introduction

Recent developments in the tech sector in China, including
government directives concerning heightened regulatory scrutiny of
tech companies listed or looking to list in the US or on exchanges
in other overseas jurisdictions, highlight the elevated strategic
importance of data security issues in China. This is the context in
which the new Data Security Law (DSL) of the People’s Republic
of China1 (PRC) will come into force on
September 1, 2021.

The DSL represents the Chinese government’s further efforts
to protect data security and regulate cross-border data transfers,
areas that have been a focus for policymakers since the launch of
the Cybersecurity Law2 (CSL) in 2016.  The
introduction of the DSL significantly bolsters the data security
legal framework in China, but also leaves intact other data-related
laws and regulations, such as the CSL and the PRC State Secrets
Law3 (SSL), which continue to apply in
parallel.  This means that businesses holding data classified
as “state secrets”, as well as data newly designated as
“important data”, will need to comply with the
requirements of both the SSL and the DSL (as well as any other
applicable rules and regulations).

Since the DSL is mostly principles-based legislation, it can be
viewed as a framework to be fleshed out subsequently through
implementing rules, guidance and national standards, as well as
regulatory action and interpretations as and when authorities seek
to enforce the law in practice. As with the CSL, the fleshing out
of the DSL in this way will likely be an evolving process, with
certain key measures expected to be introduced in the coming months
but full implementation of all aspects of the law likely taking
much longer.

In this update, we provide an overview of the DSL, including key
considerations for international investors and businesses.

II. Overview

The DSL was passed by the Standing Committee of the National
People’s Congress of the PRC on June 10, 2021. As the
nation’s first foundational law in the field of data security,
the DSL regulates various aspects of data collection, processing
and transfer and identifies fundamental principles in connection
with, among other things, data classification, data security
obligations for data processors, cross-border data transfers and a
national security review framework.

Of particular significance is the call for the establishment of
a nationwide multidisciplinary data classification system, which
will result in “data” being classified according to
factors such as the degree of harm to national security or the
public interest if the data in question is compromised. The DSL
also refers to two special categories of data—”important
data” and “national core data”—and
specifically provides for stricter regulation of, as well as
heavier penalties for breach incidents involving, these two
categories of data.

The DSL applies to all data processing activities in China but
will also have extraterritorial reach to the extent that data
processing activities outside China harm or damage national
security, the public interest or the rights and interests of any
Chinese citizens or organizations. As such, and given the breadth
of the term “data processing activities” (which include
the collection and storage of data), it may turn out to be the case
that a person or entity outside of China risks being in breach of
the law and becoming the subject of enforcement action in a number
of different circumstances. It remains to be seen, however, to what
extent the extraterritorial provisions are interpreted and applied
in practice—much will turn on implementing rules and the
approach of policymakers.

For cross-border data transfers, the DSL overlaps to some extent
with the CSL and the Export Control Law4. In addition, there
is an important express general prohibition in the DSL on providing
data stored in China to foreign law enforcement authorities without
prior approval from relevant Chinese authorities.

III. Key Features of the DSL

1. Scope and Territorial Reach

As discussed above, the DSL applies to data processing
activities in China but has extraterritorial scope to the extent
that data processing activities outside China harm or damage
Chinese national security, the public interest or the lawful rights
and interests of any Chinese citizens or organizations.

2. Regulation and Enforcement

The regulation of data security will not fall to a single
authority. Instead, the DSL refers to the responsibilities of
various government authorities, as follows:



1.     Central National Security

  • Implementation of national data security strategies and major

  • Establishment of a “national data security work
    coordination mechanism.”

2.     Public security and national security

  • Supervision of data security.

3.     Government departments across
different sectors and levels

  • Regulation of data security and processing in relevant sectors
    (e.g., telecommunications, transportation, finance, natural
    resources, public health, education, technology, and so on) and

4.     Cyberspace Administration of China

  • Coordination and supervision of internet data security


3. Data Classification Protection System

The DSL calls for the establishment of a data classification
system to protect data based on:

  1. The degree of importance of the data to the social and economic
    development of China.

  2. The degree of harm to national security, the public interest or
    the rights and interests of individuals and organizations if the
    data is destroyed, leaked or used illegally.

This is not the first time a data classification system has been
proposed. Sector-specific rules already exist, such as the
Guidelines for Data Classification and Grading for the Securities
and Futures Industry5. However, the DSL classification
system is an overarching statutory endorsement of the principle
that all data ought to be classified and regulated taking into
account national security and/or strategic development goals.

4. Regulation of “Important Data” and
“National Core Data”

The DSL refers to two special categories of
data—”important data” and “national core
data”—and specifically provides for stricter regulation
of, as well as heavier penalties for breach incidents involving,
these two categories of data.

“Important data” is not defined but will be explicitly
designated as such based on the two considerations set out in
paragraph 3 above. There is expected to be a catalogue of
“important data” designated at the national level, as
well as designations at regional and/or sector-specific levels. The
CAC, for example, has recently issued the draft Provisions on
Automobile Data Security Management6, which define the scope
of “important data” in the automotive industry and
designate certain categories of data as “important data”
(e.g., traffic flow data in military control zones, mapping data
that is more precise than that published by the government and
statistics on the types and flows of vehicles).

The definition of “national core data” is vague and
includes data concerning national security, the economic pillars,
the livelihood of the Chinese people and significant public
interest matters. The concept of “national core data” was
introduced late in the day into the final version of the DSL, so
there is limited market commentary currently on specific examples
of “national core data” in practice or the significance
of data being characterized as such. What can be said is that
“national core data” is expected to be protected to a
higher degree and more strictly regulated than “important
data.” It is likely that, as with “important data,”
“national core data” will also be designated as such by
the relevant authorities.

5. Data Processors and Their Data Security

In broad terms, data processors are required by the DSL to:

  1. Establish a data security management system aimed at
    safeguarding data security, including by way of identifying data
    security risks or breach incidents and providing notification of
    such risks or incidents.

  2. Comply with the existing “multi-level protection
    scheme,” which requires internet network operators to classify
    their systems in China based on the risks to national security,
    social order or economic interests if such systems are damaged or

  3. With respect to “important data,” appoint a data
    security officer and management body to be responsible for ensuring
    data security, carrying out regular risk assessments and filing
    assessment reports with the relevant regulatory bodies.

6. Cross-border Transfers of Data

There are three key themes in the DSL in relation to
cross-border data transfers.

First, the DSL distinguishes between Critical Information
Infrastructure (CII) operators and non-CII data processing entities
and establishes different frameworks for cross-border transfers of
“important data” by these two types of operator:

  1. CII operators are engaged in important
    industries and sectors such as information services, finance and
    public services. They must follow the rules established under the
    CSL, which require storage in China of data gathered or produced in
    China, and a security assessment conducted by the relevant
    government authorities where cross-border transfers of the data are
    necessary for business purposes.

  2. Non-CII data processing entities are other
    operators of data who must comply with separate rules that are to
    be published by CAC and other relevant government departments.

Second, individuals and organizations are expressly prohibited
under the DSL from providing data stored in China to foreign law
enforcement authorities, save with the prior approval of relevant
Chinese authorities. This prohibition is very broad, so it is
expected that there will be further detailed measures or guidelines
to shed light on what constitutes data stored in China and how an
applicant should apply for approval to make a relevant

Third and finally, the DSL specifies that data relating to a
controlled item under the relevant export control rules also
constitutes a controlled item, meaning that a permit is required
from the Ministry of Commerce or its local bureau to authorize a
cross-border transfer of such data. This is consistent with the
Export Control Law.

7. National Security Review System

The DSL establishes a data security review regime to identify
data processing activities that impact or may impact national
security. It is unclear which authority will be responsible for
implementing such a system, what types of data processing
activities will fall within the scope of the regime and what
criteria will form the basis of the review. However, it is likely
that once a clearer regulatory framework is established, national
security data reviews will become as important as cybersecurity
reviews and will need to be factored into routine corporate
compliance activities.

8. Other Key Provisions and Sanctions

Other noteworthy provisions in the DSL include the specific
reference to China’s ability to adopt countermeasures if any
foreign country or region takes discriminatory measures against
Chinese investment or trade relating to data or data technologies,
as well as the potential establishment of a data trading management
system to regulate trading in data.

A breach of the DSL may give rise to administrative, civil
and/or criminal liabilities and different penalties may be imposed
depending on the type and severity of the violation and the type of
data (e.g., noncompliance relating to “important data” or
“national core data” will attract more severe penalties).
Penalties that may be issued by the Chinese authorities include
correction orders, warnings and fines as well as, in serious cases,
confiscation of illegal income, revocation of business licenses and
suspension of operations.

IV. Key Implications for Foreign Investors and Businesses

The DSL will take effect at a time of tightening international
regulation in the sphere of data security, so it does not exist in
a vacuum. Other key markets have similarly sought to ensure robust
measures are in place for controlling data collection, processing,
handling and disclosures and so market participants, especially
those that conduct cross-border investments and operations, are
therefore well accustomed to data security requirements. In the
context of the DSL, foreign investors and businesses will need to
be attuned to these considerations in the Chinese market.

However, since the DSL is mostly principles-based, the real
impact of the law remains to be seen and will depend on the content
of expected implementing rules and other guidance and how the
regime is implemented. In the meantime, overlaps between the DSL
and other key data-related legislation in China (e.g., the CSL and
the upcoming Personal Information Protection Law7 (PIPL)), as well as the involvement
of different authorities with responsibilities for different
aspects of DSL oversight and enforcement, signal that DSL
compliance may be tricky to navigate.

1. Foreign Investors

The DSL has very clear national security objectives (among
others). The same is true of legal and regulatory developments in
other areas in China, including tightened regulation of the FinTech
sector, the introduction of national security review in the context
of inbound foreign investments, as well as very recent policy
statements regarding more stringent regulation of Chinese
businesses seeking overseas listings. All of these developments
have prompted or been prompted by rather dramatic regulatory
activity in China that has impacted large businesses, entire
sectors and markets more generally. Against this backdrop, data
security in China is no longer a minor compliance matter. It has
become a policy and enforcement tool for achieving key national
policy objectives of China in the context of broader geopolitical

From a practical perspective, therefore, foreign investors
considering Chinese investment targets should consider the need to
carefully diligence the data protection and security systems of
those targets. Relevant data security considerations could arise at
the national, regional, local and/or sector-specific levels,
meaning that a broad scoping of these considerations should be
undertaken in conjunction with local counsel in China with suitable

While it may not be possible to eliminate risks in this area,
not least because of the evolving nature of the applicable legal
framework, investors should at a minimum seek to obtain comfort on
a target group’s ability to respond to and accommodate
regulatory requirements and/or actions in the data security space
and appropriately factor in any such risks in the structuring and
pricing of relevant investments. Investors may also wish to require
targets to rectify data compliance issues before closing a deal
and/or ensure suitable downside protection and remedies are in
place when, for example, a listing cannot be achieved within an
agreed timeframe.

Although the extent to which foreign persons may be the subject
of enforcement activity under the DSL remains to be seen, potential
recipients of data from Chinese parties may, depending on the
context, wish to exercise more caution. For example, it may be
prudent to diligence the disclosing party’s data protection,
security and compliance systems and, where appropriate, agree to
suitable contractual protections, such as an indemnity for breach
of data protection laws, to help de-risk DSL noncompliance where
there could be extraterritorial consequences.

2. Businesses

Corporate culture in much of the world has already adapted to
the changing international body of data protection laws and
regulations. In order to comply with increasingly complex
data-related laws and regulations, businesses have grown more
cautious and strategic about how systems involving data are
established and operated as they seek to manage compliance risks at
an early stage. It is, for example, increasingly common for
businesses to:

  1. Conduct a holistic review of their data systems to understand
    precisely what data is collected, where that happens and where the
    data is transferred, as well as system weaknesses and

  2. Proactively consult with regulators with respect to
    sector-specific data, to the extent practicable.

  3. Adopt a flexible framework of controls based on core data
    privacy and security principles, which is adaptable as the law and
    regulatory environment evolves.

  4. Prepare relevant manuals and training programs to educate
    employees about key risks and developments.

The DSL will require such activities from a Chinese law
perspective and may, if such steps are not already a feature of a
corporate compliance program (for the purpose of identifying state
secrets information, for example), require a company to undertake a
comprehensive ongoing data collection, identification and
categorization exercise involving the data generated by the
business. This may be the only way to manage appropriately the
compliance risks associated with collecting or generating
“important data” and “national core data.”

Businesses will also need to be mindful of the prohibition on
the provision of data stored in China (without consent) to foreign
agencies. It is currently unclear how this prohibition —
which applies to all data — will be applied in practice, but
we may see it narrowed in scope to ensure that businesses with an
international footprint, in particular, are able to comply with it
in practice. In the past, significant tensions have resulted from
overseas listed Chinese companies being required by applicable
foreign law and regulation to disclose information for audit and
other purposes that is considered sensitive from a Chinese
perspective. The DSL may mean such tensions arise more regularly
and in more contexts for Chinese businesses.

V. Outlook for Data Security Development in the PRC

Data security is a key focus for policymakers in China and is a
strong theme in the evolving legal landscape, now reinforced by the
DSL as a framework for the articulation of detailed measures and
regulations in the coming months and years. These will give life to
critically important matters such as the cataloguing of
“important data” and “national core data,” the
data national security review process and the approvals procedure
for cross-border data transfers.

The DSL does not displace, but instead supplements other laws
that already regulate different aspects of data security. In
addition to existing regulations and data cataloguing requirements
at local or sector-specific levels, the DSL follows on the
coattails of the CSL and is expected to be followed by the PIPL,
which will be aimed at protecting personal information under a more
structured framework, similar to the General Data Protection
Regulation in the EU. The SSL also remains in place and applies to
all state secrets information. Careful scrutiny and monitoring of
data security issues is now therefore more important and complex
than ever – for both businesses focused on data security
compliance and investors who wish to ensure that investee companies
and targets subject to the DSL are well positioned to meet the new
requirements and address further regulatory developments in this


1. 《中华人民共和国数据安全法》

2. 《中华人民共和国网络安全法》

3. 《中华人民共和国保守国家秘密法》

4. 《中华人民共和国出口管制法》.

5. 《证券期货业数据分类分级指引》

6. 《汽车数据安全管理若干规定(征求意见稿)》

7. 《中华人民共和国个人信息保护法》

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