What Makes China’s Views on Privacy and Digital Rights Different

Personal privacy and digital rights have become major global concerns as the digital age has progressed. China’s views and practices on this issue frequently elicit great interest and controversy. In a fast-changing technology landscape, we frequently hear news reports regarding China’s digital monitoring, big data analytics, and infringement of personal privacy rights. This raises questions about China’s distinct perspectives on privacy and digital liberties. Is China’s digital ecosystem truly different from the Western world? What is the distinction between Chinese privacy concepts and digital rights protection? In this blog, we will look at China’s distinctive perspectives and positions on privacy and digital rights, as well as the historical, cultural, and political aspects that shape them.

China’s evolving views on privacy

Therefore, what is privacy? According to the Australian government (2023), privacy is a fundamental human right that underpins freedom of association, opinion and speech, and non-discrimination. It is difficult to describe because different countries and individuals hold different ideas. Privacy encompasses the right to be free of interruption and intrusion, to associate freely with anyone you choose, and to choose who sees or uses information about you. However, on a deeper level, privacy includes the freedom and protection of a person’s thoughts, feelings, and body. Privacy is an essential component of human freedom and dignity, and protecting privacy is a critical safeguard for personal dignity and personality rights.As the digital age progressed, the notion of digital rights emerged, with the goal of protecting individuals’ rights and freedoms in the digital environment. It represents an expansion of privacy rights. Digital rights are human and legal rights that enable people to access, use, produce, and publish digital material on devices like computers and smartphones, as well as in virtual spaces and communities (Reventlow, 2017). However, currently digital rights are not a set of rights in themselves, but are related to other human rights, in particular the right to freedom of expression and privacy in online and digital environments (Pangrazio & Sefton-Green, 2021).

While the criteria may be more universally applicable to privacy and digital rights, they differ in China. This is because the concept of privacy was absent in the original Chinese society, where Confucius’ theory emphasized interpersonal relationships, and ancient Chinese societies frequently concealed the secrets of family and friends, not to protect privacy, but to protect the family’s reputation (Pfeifle, 2020). Pfeifle (2020) also states that even as late as the 1980s, privacy was seen negatively, particularly when it came to very sensitive and unsaid secrets. Although, with the development of the digital age, China has increasingly established privacy protection laws that criminalize the infringement of personal rights and private, privacy is not ingrained in traditional Chinese culture. It was brought into the Chinese system from the West. As a result, the concept of privacy in China remains very different from that of privacy in other nations, such as Europe.

China’s first comprehensive privacy law

In August 2021, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s top legislative body, passed China’s first comprehensive law on the protection of personal information, the Personal Information Protection Law (PIPL). The PIPL’s objective is to protect and regulate personal information, including cross-border personal information management (Australian Government, 2024). The Act principally addresses the increased regulation and legal liabilities that processors of personal information will face. According to the PIPL, personal information processing must adhere to the principles of legality, legitimacy, necessity, and minimization; personal information collection, storage, use, and transmission must be carried out within the scope of clearly defined purposes; and the necessary technical and organizational measures must be taken to protect the security of personal information. At the same time, the PIPL specifies requirements for cross-border transfers of personal information, requiring individuals or organizations to comply with specific national cyberspace management requirements when transferring personal data from China to locations outside of China, as well as to ensure that the information is secure and communicated to the data subject. Violations of the PIPL are subject to appropriate legal obligations and penalties, such as large fines and suspension of operations (PCPD, 2024). 

Although this law was meant to increase personal privacy protections, it also includes several exceptions to strengthen national security. For example, the PIPL specifically addresses the use of facial recognition in public places, including the requirement that it be used only for public safety purposes unless everyone individually consents: “The installation of image capture or personal identification equipment in public places shall be in accordance with the need to maintain public safety, comply with the relevant state regulations, and be clearly signposted.” (Creemers & Webster, 2021). Which was emphasized that any personal images or personally identifiable information gathered would be used solely for the goal of safeguarding public security and could not be used for any other reason without the individual’s permission. Additional restrictions are placed on the transmission of information about Chinese nationals outside of the country.

What’s behind the law

Thus, underlying the legislation listed above, Jia (2023) claims that China appears to have a divided role in privacy, with rules limiting how corporations can handle citizens’ data while the government has unrestricted monitoring powers. What is certain is that the Chinese government values national security over individual privacy. This is vastly different from the Western world. In addition, when it comes to privacy rules, the Western world concentrates on restricting the rights of governments rather than corporations. One example of this is that according to Suzor (2019), Facebook technically has no concept of legally protected free expression. The government cannot request that Facebook remove an image you submit (unless it is vulgar or illegal for another reason), but Facebook can enforce any regulation. The rationale is straightforward: the government is powerful–it has a monopoly on force that we must obey–so its power must be regulated by law and severely restricted by the courts. This is why the First Amendment in the United specifies only applies to the government, not to firms like Google and Facebook, its first article explicitly specifies that Congress shall make no law restricting free speech or the press (Suzor, 2019).

This demonstrates the distinction between privacy laws in the Western world and those in China is that the West prefers to limit the state’s power to protect individuals’ privacy and rights, whereas China prefers to grant more legal exceptions to the state in order to safeguard national security and dominance, even if this means sacrificing some of the citizens’ rights and privacy. This divergent perspective results in a different concept of privacy and digital rights in China. Second, under Chinese government rule, regular citizens may experience significant inconvenience if they seek to defend their privacy. For example, in the sake of national security, the government has invested heavily in facial recognition monitoring, which has been beneficial in lowering crime rates but has also infringed on people’s privacy. If one does not wish to be monitored by cameras, one has only two options: go out early in the morning or stay in distant places without observation for an extended period, both of which are obviously unachievable.

Furthermore, on major social media sites, the Chinese government’s management infiltrates everyone’s everyday lives. When registering for an account, real-name identification is necessary, which means that persons who use restricted words, post fraudulent information, or make statements that jeopardise national security may face serious consequences such as account suspension or legal action. As a result, many issues that would be considered an invasion of personal privacy in Western countries are seen as the norm in the Chinese public perspective.

This has led to the problem of the privacy paradox becoming more prominent in China. The privacy paradox refers to the fact that as the Internet of Things evolves, people become increasingly aware that their personal privacy is being exposed to the network; however, even though most users are concerned about privacy and security, they are willing to sacrifice some of their privacy for the convenience provided by Internet-connected devices (Bongiovanni et al., n.d.). This could be related to the fact that consumers typically balance their personal privacy with the enjoyment of a specific service or benefit. In some circumstances, people may unintentionally give up some privacy to obtain convenience or access certain services. Second, people have some contradictions in their perceptions of privacy and security. They may understand the significance of privacy, yet they often underestimate the risk of personal information being misused.

Consumers’ attitudes towards digital data privacy in China as of November 2022

Statista. (2023)

According to the data presented above, more than half of Chinese respondents are willing to give up part of their personal privacy in exchange for more convenient services like customization. Furthermore, nearly 55% of respondents believe that personal information leaking is unavoidable in China. Only 27% of respondents feel that personal information leaks will affect their daily lives. These findings indicate that personal information leaking is not widely recognized as a severe privacy issue in China and has not sparked widespread concern and fear among the people.

This also highlights the disparity in attitudes toward privacy and digital rights in China, which could be attributed to the fact that privacy as a foreign object is still undergoing cultural adaptation in China (Ho, M. T., 2020). Similarly, I believe that the Chinese government’s privacy policy may result in passive shifts in people’s attitudes about privacy and digital rights.

The Impact of Government on Privacy and Digital Rights

Therefore, I believe that in China, people’s perspectives on digital rights and privacy are altered when the government serves as both a regulator and an auditor in addition to creating privacy regulations. Many people are unconcerned with the government collecting and analyzing personal information. “I have nothing to hide,” they say. “You should only be concerned if you’re doing anything bad, and you shouldn’t keep it hidden (Solove, 2011). And it is what the government normally promotes. However, the gradual erosion of privacy occurs over time, unintentionally, until people become aware. According to Solove (2011), the government may begin by monitoring phone numbers and then progressively increase the scope of surveillance to encompass telephones, cameras, satellite surveillance, and so on. This incremental surveillance may include personal banking records, credit card records, Internet service provider records, health records, and employment records. While each step may appear small, over time, the government may be able to monitor and learn about every element of a resident’s life. The intention is to acclimate you to the possibility that disclosing this information might be a normal occurrence in daily life.

The lack of transparency and accountability in a platform’s review system often leaves users confused as to why their content has been deleted or their accounts banned. Social media platforms try to maintain neutrality and want to be seen as technology platforms that only offer communication and sharing of content. To maintain this image of neutrality, platforms hide the complex process of reviewing content and handling complaints. As a result, when platforms conduct content review and curation, it is often done unobtrusively to maintain the appearance of neutrality. Most vetting processes are conducted in secret, and the way platforms enforce their rules is often hidden from public view and designed as a “black box” (Suzor,2019).

At the same time, when a country is the creator and manager of such a giant platform for the whole of society, but with the same lack of oversight, this leads to a loss of rights and privacy. Because you can only do and say what the government wants, you may be breaking the law when the government thinks your actions and speech are not conducive to national security. In summary, the main reasons that lead to the concept of privacy and digital rights in China being different from that of the Western world, apart from the fact that privacy, as a foreign import, did not exist in the philosophical concepts of ancient China, include China’s special state system, which puts national security ahead of personal privacy and digital rights. Together, these factors contribute to the differences between most Chinese people’s perceptions of privacy and those of the Western world.


Australian government. (2023b, October 27). What is privacy? OAIC. https://www.oaic.gov.au/privacy/your-privacy-rights/your-personal-information/what-is-privacy

Australian Government. (2024). China’s new personal Information Protection law. Retrieved April 12, 2024, from https://www.education.gov.au/download/14672/chinas-personal-information-protection-law/30396/chinas-personal-information-protection-law/pdf

Bongiovanni, I., Renaud, K., & Aleisa, N. (n.d.). The privacy paradox: we claim we care about our data, so why don’t our actions match? The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/the-privacy-paradox-we-claim-we-care-about-our-data-so-why-dont-our-actions-match-143354

Creemers, R., & Webster, G. (2021). Translation: Personal Information Protection Law of the People’s Republic of China – Effective Nov. 1, 2021. Stanford University. https://digichina.stanford.edu/work/translation-personal-information-protection-law-of-the-peoples-republic-of-china-effective-nov-1-2021/

Ho, M. T. (2020). Privacy in China: An acculturation perspective

Solove, D. J. (2011). Why Privacy Matters Even if You Have “Nothing to Hide.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://immagic.com/eLibrary/ARCHIVES/GENERAL/CHRON_HE/C110515S.pdf

Jia, M. (2023). What’s Behind China’s Laws to Protect Privacy? ChinaFile. https://www.chinafile.com/reporting-opinion/notes-chinafile/whats-behind-chinas-laws-protect-privacy#:~:text=In%20the%20article%2C%20I%20discuss,to%20data%2Drelated%20social%20grievances.

Pangrazio, L., & Sefton-Green, J. (2021). Digital rights, digital citizenship and digital literacy: What’s the difference? Dialnet. https://dialnet.unirioja.es/servlet/articulo?codigo=7717195

Pfeifle, S. (2020, May 6). China’s evolving views on privacy. International Association of Privacy Professionals. https://iapp.org/news/a/chinas-evolving-views-on-privacy/

PCPD. (2024). Mainland’s Personal Information Protection Law.https://www.pcpd.org.hk/english/data_privacy_law/mainland_law/mainland_law.html

Reventlow, N. (2017). Digital rights are human rights.

https:// digitalfreedomfund.org/digital-rights-are-human-rights/

Suzor, Nicolas P. 2019. ‘Who Makes the Rules?’. In Lawless: the secret rules that govern our lives. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. pp. 10-24.



Statista. (2023). Consumers’ opinions on online personal data protection in China 2022. https://www.statista.com/statistics/1367369/china-consumer-attitudes-towards-digital-privacy/

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