- Despite a raging debate in the US and Europe over data privacy in recent months, there hasn’t been much talk about data privacy in China.
- A professor at one of China’s top business schools told Business Insider that the lack of an uproar comes down to cultural attitudes about privacy, as it’s common in China to ask highly personal questions of people you have just met.
- Those cultural attitudes could change, he said, if Chinese people are confronted with more examples of tech companies or the government trampling their rights to privacy.
Over the last several months, the US and Europe have been embroiled in a long-standing debate over data privacy, but one place where that debate hasn’t been nearly as developed is China.
Privacy has long been nearly nonexistent in China.
The ruling Communist Party has vast networks of closed-circuit cameras in its major cities and it requires tech companies like Tencent, Toutiao, and others to monitor their users’ online communications and censor content.
And the surveillance is only getting tighter with the proliferation of technology like facial recognition and artificial intelligence. The surveillance apparatus in China’s restive Xinjiang province has made clear the government’s ambitions to use technology to control the population, at least when it comes to security issues like those in Xinjiang.
In recent months, however, there has been a growing outcry over privacy, at least when it comes to personal data. In January, Ant Financial, an affiliate of Alibaba, apologised after users spoke out about the company automatically enrolling users in its Sesame Credit scoring program.
And in April, the Chinese internet was buzzing with the admission by a government watchdog that it could retrieve deleted WeChat messages. The admission came after it was long suspected by many in the country that the government was surveilling users’ WeChat communications.
While both incidents raised the ire of Chinese citizens, neither those incidents nor any of the government’s surveillance tactics have stirred nearly the buzz that recent admissions by Facebook have in the US or Europe.
Dr. Zhang Weining, an associate professor at Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business, told Business Insider that it comes back to China’s overall cultural attitude to privacy. For many Chinese, privacy is an altogether alien concept, as Luisa Tam wrote recently in a column at the South China Morning Post.
As Zhang put it, when you meet someone in China, it’s not just common, but expected for that person to ask about just about every detail of your personal life. Even more so if the person is older than you.
“Everybody just asks, what is your salary? Are you married? When will you have kids? Why haven’t you had kids yet? Where do you live? Why did you change your job?,” Zhang said.
“We don’t have privacy in China traditionally. This kind of abuse is nothing to us. People may be talking about privacy, but psychologically, we don’t care.”
In addition, Zhang said, the highest priority for most Chinese people is on building wealth and either getting out or staying out of the grinding poverty from which the country has only recently escaped.
“All the young people are very busy chasing their dreams, and the old people don’t care. That means privacy is not the top priority in people’s lives,” Zhang said.
For many Chinese, it comes down to a trade-off between convenience and privacy. Chinese internet services have developed rapidly through widespread access to the user data generated by mobile payments, food deliveries, ride-hailing, messaging, and other services.
As Feng Chucheng of risk analysis firm Blackpeak told Sixth Tone in March, “open access to user data” has fuelled China’s tech industry for the better part of the last decade.
But, according to Zhang, if more negative stories come out like those related to Ant Financial and WeChat, cultural attitudes could shift. At this point, however, most people “don’t think it’s a serious issue,” he said.
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