Privacy: a great conversation topic


This whole PRISM debacle has freaked out and enraged a good section of the American population, and with good reason. But if you try talking about the issue with a Chinese citizen, some very interesting themes may emerge.

Here’s an imagined dialog to illustrate the point:

> American: Did you hear about this whole PRISM thing going on in the U.S.?

> Chinese: No, what is it?

> American: The U.S. government seems to have made a deal with a bunch of major internet companies to get all kinds of supposedly “private” information on all kinds of people.

> Chinese: And?

> American: Well, it was kept secret until recently, when the truth was revealed.

> Chinese: But this was actually surprising to the American people?

> American: Well yeah! We have a right to privacy.

> Chinese: Sounds like Americans and Chinese have pretty similar rights to privacy.

> American: Whoa, whoa… not the same thing! We have rule of law, we have democratically elected leaders, and we can actually speak out against this thing and effect change!

> Chinese: Yeah, good luck with that.

So the Chinese person above was depicted as overly cynical for dramatic effect, but seriously, you should have a conversation with your Chinese friends about the topic of privacy (隐私). It’s not just a political issue; it’s also a cultural issue, and it’s really interesting to hear the views of young Chinese people on privacy. I talked with some friends about some of the issues in the article Why Privacy Matters Even if You Have ‘Nothing to Hide’, and it provided a great starting point for this complex topic.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. In a conversation about the difference between ‘personal’ and ‘private’ things, a Chinese friend told me: “Here, the state is our father; in the West, it is your older brother.” Granted, that was seven years ago, a time when the average US citizen had a bit more swagger about his nation’s moral foundation, but my friend’s unintentional Orwell reference seems creepy in hindsight.

    What’s most insidious about China’s system of censorship, and ours to a growing extent, is that it forces the duality between ‘private’ and ‘public’ knowledge, which is transparent code for illicit and licit knowledge. There is no room in that binary for personal (as opposed to private) things. That is why, mentioned or implied, the censor is the main character in every substantial work of Chinese literature since Lu Xun, and why so few of those post-1949 works are important to the world.

  2. I think that it is worth pointing out that we didn’t vote all that many people out of office after the Patriot Act passed, and all of this seems to be in line with what is contained in that bill.

    Now to be clear I disagree with the Patriot Act, did then and still do, however that would appear to be a major difference between the approaches our countries take to the issue. We love to forget about this in our current outrage, but we opened the flood gates on this and not all that many of us complained. This wasn’t some insane power grab by the government, it was widely agreed to at the time. We are only so shocked now that the clear implications of that bill have been made clear.

    Another interesting, if incredibly awkward, conversation to have with a Chinese friend is regarding PRISM specifically. Which is to say, the foreign surveillance programs undertaken against those who did not agree to it at all.

  3. When my friends back home ask me what it’s like to live in a communist country with such little freedom I like to bring up examples such as this one. Obviously there are major differences but in many ways our two societies are more similar than we realize, for better or for worse.

    • @Lucas: don’t you tell your friends that you have a whole lot more freedom here than back home? Here you don’t get stopped every 2 miles just because you’re black, or frisked because the cops don’t like your face. I was in the USA a few weeks ago, and I could not help feeling observed all the time – the food is tasteless, and the same everywhere… BTW I am not Chinese, but Dutch and to be honest: I do not like going back to Europe either, for the same reasons. I can not drive car without getting tickets for the most ridiculous reasons: the wheels touch the curb, the tail is sticking over the white line, speeding 3 km/h, not displaying the insurance tag properly, using the wrong parking card (version 2010 instead of version 2012)…

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