Law in the Internet Society

Surveillance Capitalism in an Anti-Democratic Space

-- By ElaineHuang - 30 Dec 2020


In the Western sphere, companies like Facebook collect and sell users’ data to other companies that then use that data to change our thoughts and actions, often to get us to buy more things and increase these companies’ profits. People are used mainly as a means to a commercial end.

In China, however, while surveillance capitalism exists, it is used differently. Where democracy is nonexistent and privacy from the government is basically a lost cause, surveillance capitalism serves first and foremost the government. Certain Chinese cities have started to use data from surveillance cameras and facial recognition software to implement behavior-based credit programs that reward those with good behavior and punish those with bad, which is determined by the government. While companies like Tencent and Alibaba can certainly benefit from consumer data collection by selling it to third parties, ultimately, it is the government who controls. For example, when Jack Ma, founder of Ant Group, criticized China’s financial regulation policies, the Chinese Communist Party quickly responded by blocking Ant Group’s IPO, and from this, it seems that a business can do what they want in China, but only if they show complete respect for the government’s authority.

In the following paragraphs, I attempt to provide a brief explanation as to why surveillance capitalism and privacy works the way it does in China.

Culture and Privacy in China

While there is a growing privacy concern among some Chinese citizens, this concern is focused more on how people's individual data is sold to third parties, rather than on privacy from the government. The Chinese legislative system has also focused on the former, rather than the latter, in its relatively nascent development of privacy laws. These laws, at least on paper, protect consumers’ data from exploitation by corporations and private individuals (e.g. the MIIT Internet Information Services Regulations, which aims to regulate the collection of personal information by telecommunications companies, and the SC-NPC Decision on Internet Information Protection). There is no equivalent protection from governmental intrusions of privacy.

Community Values

This could be a result of the long-lasting impact of Confucianism in Chinese culture, where the individual’s rights come second to that of the larger community to create order. The CCP takes this to mean that anything that might impede achieving this lofty goal of order and harmony must be eliminated. In the development of Chinese privacy law, these Confucian values ended up forming a basis for what it will or will not protect against. So, even with this growing concern of having their personal data sold on a black market, many people focus on the benefits that these surveillance technologies provide. For example, shoppers no longer have to bring their wallets or cash; they can pay via facial recognition or QR code. During the pandemic, people have received color codes on their phones to signify their health status and track the places they visit. Residential areas and university campuses also have guarded against the virus by using facial recognition software to prevent outsiders from entering. Many believe that this sort of surveillance technology, and the Social Credit System, ultimately makes society better, safer, and more orderly. Thus, this ideal of community greater than oneself may be one of the contributing factors as to why the growing concern for privacy in China focuses less on privacy from the government, as it’s a small price to pay for the good of society.

Protection From Shame

There are also the Confucian notions of shame and bringing disgrace to one’s family. Regarding the “human flesh search engine” in China, where netizens dox certain individuals who do things that the community online deems wrong or immoral, privacy would act as a protection against such harassment. In one particular instance where a cheating man was harassed online and offline over the suicide of his wife, the People’s Court in Beijing fined the hosting website and a friend of the wife very negligible amounts. According to the New York Times, the court “chastised Wang, who admitted his infidelity, and said it had reduced the amount of the fines because of his moral lapses.” The shame and extreme harassment have caused some to demand stricter privacy laws in China, as people’s livelihoods and lives have been ruined after becoming a target of human flesh searching, and in 2017, the Supreme People’s Court and Supreme People’s Procuratorate announced that perpetrators could get up to seven years behind bars. So we see an instance of growing protection in the law against privacy intrusions by private actors/corporations, although whether or not these laws are strictly enforced is a different issue.


Our cultural notions of privacy play a role in how we perceive this collection of our data. In the western democratic world, individualism and privacy are highly valued, and we have seen how surveillance capitalism has affected our politics during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. There is thus a demand for greater privacy rights protection from both corporations/private actors and the government here. In contrast, the growing demand for privacy in China distinguishes between privacy from corporations and private actors and privacy from the government. In China, where the government is absolute, the CCP uses surveillance capitalism for the purposes of statecraft but is willing to allow companies to benefit up to a point, as long as they completely defer to the CCP. And the people, partly due to their cultural perspective on privacy and partly due to their understanding that asking for privacy from the government would be a wasted effort, demand less of this protection and/or view governmental surveillance as beneficial to their country. Thus surveillance capitalism may continue to serve the CCP for years to come, but as the people in China become more aware of companies and other individuals exploiting their personal information, perhaps Chinese privacy law will develop to some extent to protect against this latter form of intrusion.

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r3 - 30 Dec 2020 - 17:00:11 - ElaineHuang
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