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Opinion ∙ Privacy in China: Legal Culture, Literacy, and Imaginaries

Ariane Ollier-Malaterre*

In many parts of the world, citizens leave data traces when they conduct internet searches, post on social media, send messages, make electronic payments, or go by facial recognition cameras. In China, the scale of the data being collected, in a sociotechnical environment where the use of cash is fast disappearing and social media platforms such as WeChat are the fabric of everyday life for personal, social, and work purposes, heightens privacy and data protection issues. In this text, I wish to introduce readers to field work that I have conducted in China to understand Chinese citizens’ privacy and surveillance imaginaries and how they live with such an intense exposure. I hope this brief note will foster interest for my book Living with Digital Surveillance in China: Citizens’ Narratives on Technology, Privacy and Governance recently published in the Routledge Studies in Surveillance series.1 This monograph draws on in-depth research interviews I have conducted in Chengdu, Shanghai, and Beijing in 2019, a diary of daily observations during the time I spent there and in travels in the Western provinces of Shaanxi, Gansu, Qinhai, Xinjiang, and Sichuan, and extensive cross-disciplinary documentation.

The Legal Culture of Privacy in China

In China, legal cases regarding privacy matters are more often been based on the right to reputation or the right to portrait than on the right to privacy.2 This emphasis on reputation may reflect the philosophical roots of privacy, which tend to subordinate the personal realm to the public realm.3 While both Confucianism and Taoism emphasize self-cultivation, they do not frame self-cultivation as gaining individual autonomy and intimacy or developing values and beliefs distinct from social norms.4

However, privacy protection has gained traction over the past decades. In 2002, the Civil Code adopted Wang Limin and Yang Lixin’s definition (1997) of privacy as a ‘right enjoyed by a natural person, under which the person is free from publicity and any interference by others with personal matters.’5 The Civil Code’s revision in 2020 defines privacy as ‘the tranquillity of natural private persons’ lives, and private and confidential spaces, activities and information that they do not wish others to know about’.6 In recent years, successive regulations have redesigned scattered sector-specific privacy laws7: first the 2017 Cyber Security Law, then the 2018 Personal Information Security Specification, and lastly the 2021 Personal Information Protection Law (PIPL). The PIPL curtails the collection and use of citizens’ data by Chinese and foreign companies; on that level, regulation converges with other international regulations such as the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). However, the laws’ provisions leave ample discretion to corporations, and several loopholes enable state agencies to invoke state secrecy or their statutory duties and responsibilities to not notify citizens of data collection and not obtain their consent.8 Overall, Chinese studies professor Rogier Creemers notes that privacy does not have a constitutional status like in Europe or the US and that, in fact, ‘the very notion of a fundamental right is absent in China’s teleological, instrumental legal environment.’9 (For readers interested to learn more about historical and recent developments on privacy and surveillance in China, please refer to Chapters 1 and 2 of my book, as well as the conclusion).

Privacy Literacy and Attitudes in China

A pervasive Western stereotype goes that many Chinese people do not care about privacy because they live in a collectivist culture. In contrast with a simplistic view opposing China and ‘the West’, the privacy imaginaries of the Chinese participants to my research reflected a continuum not very different from what has been observed elsewhere. At one extreme, some participants were not concerned at all about the traces they leave as they visit websites, shop online, watch videos, send money transfers, or use Alipay and WeChat Pay to ride bikes, buses, and taxis, eat at restaurants, book their travels, their shows, and everything else. Other participants were concerned about privacy, but they felt it was not possible to hide these activities online. The cost of protecting privacy, which in many cases means that you cannot use the services, led to attitudes similar to the privacy apathy or resignation discussed in Western research.10 At the other end of the spectrum, those who were really concerned resorted to anticipatory obedience,11 refraining from watching forbidden videos or posting forbidden comments: mostly, these were people who had travelled abroad or were working for multinationals where they had exposure to colleagues and supervisors from different cultures. (For more on this, Chapter 5 of my book offers a wealth of interview excerpts).

What was more specific to China, however, was the scope of what the participants considered to be private, and the publics from which they wished to withhold private information. At first, Chinese privacy attitudes were a riddle to me. I saw people making sophisticated use of WeChat privacy settings, which are much more granular and easier to use than those of Western social media, yet many did not seem aware of all the other traces they were leaving online and offline. This puzzle made sense, however, when I realised the centrality of face-saving and social respectability in Chinese privacy imaginaries: privacy was first and foremost understood as an escape from social judgment. Indeed, privacy can be written in two different ways in Mandarin. Yīnsī means a shameful secret you need to hide (阴私), and yǐnsī means secrets, personal things you do not wish to disclose in public (隐私),12 which is closer to the Western meaning of privacy. The participants to my research embraced the first definition of privacy as hiding shameful secrets; to them, privacy meant being safe from strangers, keeping one’s undesirable behaviours hidden, and safeguarding one’s reputation. For instance, purchases they considered private were personal medicine, underwear, sex-related products, and weapons. Hiding these items was meant to save their moral face in the sense of moral integrity (lian). They also viewed their financial information, such as how much they made and owned, as a secret worth hiding, because face in Chinese thought is also social (mianzi)13; they meant to not lose face if other people discovered their lower social standing and to not make others who were less successful lose face. This pejorative delineation of privacy stands in stark contrast with definitions of privacy that emphasize freedoms, independently of the moral nature of the information and behaviours under consideration (eg, people may not want others to know their routine itineraries and habits even though there is nothing scandalous or illegal to hide).

Another interesting pattern pertained to whom the participants wanted to hide from. They mostly yearned for privacy from other individuals such as family members, colleagues, and supervisors, and social groups such as elders. It was important for them to hide a range of information, facts, and feelings from important persons in their guanxi, ie, network of relationships. Problems such as health, financial, employment, or marriage issues were hidden from parents and other elders, with the professed motive to protect them, and also to prevent their intrusive questioning. A few participants mentioned privacy protection from corporations and resented being spammed, but none seemed to consider privacy protection from the government, in line with their views of the government as a parental figure offering protection (I develop this theme in Chapter 6 of my book). Communications Professor Elaine Yuan identified a similar focus on relationships and social settings in her research on how people discuss privacy on Weibo.14 The pattern of expressing privacy concerns towards horizontal peer groups more than vertical groups is not unique to China, but it was very salient in my participants’ discourse.

Implications for Surveillance Attitudes in China

The primacy of face saving and dreading social judgement leads many to equate privacy with the hiding of shameful information and behaviours. Such a morally tainted view of privacy makes wanting privacy suspicious and deflects any critic of digital surveillance in the name of privacy. In fact, many participants to my research viewed digital surveillance as a good thing for China, in that making everyone’s behaviours visible and traceable could help to uncover and deter immoral behaviours. While technology solutionism is rampant in many countries, in China it is paramount, and technology tends to be heralded as a magic bullet to all problems; social credit rating, for instance, is framed in terms of trust-building and public security (I develop technology narratives in Chapter 7 of my book). These views help explain that repeated surveys find Chinese citizens to approve of digital surveillance more so than Western citizens.15

This support for digital surveillance is however not without boundaries. There has been significant popular backlash about experiments by private companies, municipalities, and state agencies that extended social credit rating to trivial behaviours relating to lifestyle rather than breaking the law. Chinese scholars have also greatly contributed to raising awareness about privacy risks (for more on this, see my book’s conclusion). In response, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) has issued guidelines that restrict blacklisting to severe noncompliance with the law.16 The 2022 Law on the Establishment of the Social Credit System as well as subsequent new regulations by the NDRC and the People’s Bank of China may further curb data collection. As Chinese society is more than ever characterised by a range of tensions, it will be interesting to analyse the evolutions of privacy and surveillance imaginaries and practices.


[2] Jingchung Cao, ‘Protecting the Right to Privacy in China’ (2005) 25 Victoria University of Wellington Law Review 645-664.

[3] Cristina B. Whitman, ‘Privacy in Confucian and Taoist thought’ in Donald Munro (ed), Individualism and Holism: Studies in Confucian and Taoist Values (University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies 1985), 85–100.

[4] Peter Zarrow, ‘The Origins of Modern Chinese Concepts of Privacy: Notes on Social Structure and Moral Discourse’ in Chinese Concepts of Privacy (Brill 2002) 122-146.

[5] Cao, ‘Protecting the Right to Privacy in China’.

[6] National People’s Congress, Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo minfadian [Civil Code of the People’s Republic of China] 2020, cited in Rogier Creemers, ‘China’s Emerging Data Protection Framework’ (2022) 8(1) Journal of Cybersecurity.

[7] Yongxi Chen and Anne S Y Cheung, ‘The Transparent Self under Big Data Profiling: Privacy and Chinese Legislation on the Social Credit System’ (2017) 12(2) The Journal of Comparative Law.

[8] Nicola F. Daniel, ‘EU Data Governance: Preserving Global Privacy in the Age of Surveillance’ (PhD thesis, Johns Hopkins University, 2022) <> accessed 15 December 2023.

[9] Rogier Creemers, ‘China’s Emerging Data Protection Framework’ (2022) 8(1) Journal of Cybersecurity, 2.

[10] Eszter Hargittai and Alice E. Marwick, ‘"What Can I Really Do?": Explaining the Privacy Paradox with Online Apathy’ (2016) 10 International Journal of Communication 3737-3757; Helen Kennedy et al, ‘Public Understanding and Perceptions of Data Practices: A Review of Existing Research’ in Living With Data (University of Sheffield, 2020).

[11] Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (Crown Publishing Group 2017).

[12] Cao, ‘Protecting the Right to Privacy in China’.

[13] Hsien Chin Hu, ‘The Chinese Concepts of "Face"’ (1944) 46(1) American Anthropologist, 45-64, Part 1.

[14] Elaine Yuan, ‘The Web of Meaning: The Internet in a Changing Chinese Society’ (University of Toronto Press 2021).

[15] Genia Kostka, ‘China’s Social Credit Systems and Public Opinion: Explaining High Levels of Approval’ (2019) 21(7) New Media & Society 1565–93; Chuncheng Liu, ‘Who Supports Expanding Surveillance? Exploring Public Opinion of Chinese Social Credit Systems’ (2022) 37(3) International Sociology 391–412; Zheng Su, Xu Xu and Xun Cao, ‘What Explains Popular Support for Government Monitoring in China?’ (2022) 19(4) Journal of Information Technology & Politics 377–92.

[16] Vincent Brussee, Social Credit: The Warring States of China's Emerging Data Empire (Springer Nature Singapore 2023).

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