China’s Privacy Conundrum

There is an interesting “paradox.” On one hand, if you have been following the news, the Chinese government has been deploying AI to monitor and govern more expensively than ever:

The government is using facial recognition and big data to control and monitor its citizens. Under recent legislation, authorities have enshrined the right to law enforcement access to data without due process.


On the other hand, as pointed out by this article, citizen privacy awareness is also rising, but not against the government:

This growing privacy awareness emanates from people’s concern over data leaks, which often help scammers and criminals take advantage of unwitting Chinese individuals…The government is also in the early stages of building out a framework with rules for consent; personal data collection, use, and sharing; and user-requested deletion of data. The first milestone in China’s data protection system, a standard called the Personal Information Security Specification, took effect in May…These actions on privacy issues have turned China into “a surprise leader in Asia on data privacy rules,” according to the Financial Times, showing an acute disjuncture between privacy from commercial surveillance and privacy from government surveillance.

This piece linked above frames this phenomenon as “the split identity of China’s privacy push” and an approach that’s uniquely suited to China’s political and commercial landscape, which is a completely reasonable angle to view this from an American perspective.

The foundation of the American definition of “privacy” is individual rights. An individual mind cannot be robbed of those undeniable rights. The American government, of course, is only another alien entity that is arguably both helpful and harmful depending on which school of philosophy you belong to. In one version, the government helps organize massive groups of people to live productively and does things for the greater, long-term good that private individuals or commercial groups are not incentivized to do. In another worldview, the government runs inefficient and counterproductive programs at the expense of individual rights and potential.

I suspect that the Chinese attitude towards government entities is quite different. In Confucianism, hierarchy brings order to everything, and order fosters stability and prosperity. Every household has a head of household, and every state has a head of state; to disrupt such order and act out of line is to ensure war, famine, poverty, and the fall of a dynasty. In contemporary history, the Communist revolution leveraged this perspective to position the Communist Party as the “head of household” who fights to free its family from oppression and invasion. Even today, such a narrative is only strengthened under Xi. These cultural ideas about what a government’s role is supposed to show a very different lens on how privacy should be protected in China. In other words, your family member or head of household isn’t subjected to the same rules of privacy as some salesman in Downtown, because families are supposed to be close and protective of each other.

That is not to say that everybody in China harmonizes with this narrative. In light of recent crackdowns on “harmful western ideas,” Xi’s administration is probably aware of the “erosive” effect of a popular but conflicting worldview that is American-style democracy. This government-as-head-of-household privilege can only work when everybody truly trusts the government to be in that role.

It’s also fascinating to think about how the definition of privacy and subsequently the solution to that problem is influenced by the unique culture and history of a nation. According to Baidu Baike(which I know is not the most reputable source but I could not find anything else), the word “privacy” dates back to Zhou dynasty, where the word meant “clothing for hiding private parts, which is a critical difference between humans and other animals.” Since the modern definition of privacy in Chinese is largely borrowed western literature, does the contemporary view on privacy in China reflect in any way the fusion or evolution of the traditional definition?

I don’t have the answers to these questions, but hopefully, I will find them someday. To end my thoughts with a contrasting example from the piece:

China is not the only country with a split personality when it comes to privacy: In the United States, the Supreme Court provides fairly strong privacy protections against government data collection, but the country still lacks a comprehensive consumer privacy law. In Europe, the focus is flipped, with strong controls on businesses and relatively high trust in government data collection practices…The main hurdle to Beijing’s ambitions to shape global privacy standards may be the unresolved contradiction in how the new rules play out in practice.

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