Ask Mei

Efficiency versus privacy

Which do the Chinese value more?

Efficiency versus privacy

A recent visit to Guizhou, a supposed backwater in southwestern China, opened my eyes to how efficient the high-speed train system has become, especially compared to my slower experiences in the 1980s when I made twice-yearly train journeys between Beijing and my hometown Shenyang.

Besides being impressed by the stations and the fast and orderly trains, I was also amazed by the security checks and boarding systems which use facial recognition technology. What used to require an army of uniformed staff now only takes two people – able to supervise the smooth flow of tens of thousands of passengers each day. The train traveller just puts down their ID on the reading machine and looks into the camera hole. It takes seconds to go through the gate. In fact, a typical Chinese with a valid ID can go through the whole process of booking their ticket online, collecting it from the dispenser, going through security and boarding the train without any human assistance. Interestingly, it is people like me who don’t have a domestic ID that have to still use the traditional ways of collecting the ticket from a teller behind a window, and getting security staff to check my ID manually. The old way is a lot more hassle, believe me.

While marvelling at the efficiency of the system, I couldn’t help remembering my recent discussion with British friends about the UK National Health Service which English newspapers regularly complain is abused by non-UK and non-EU citizens. I asked why the UK government doesn’t introduce a simple ID system, which has proved to be effective in distinguishing permanent residents from visitors in China and in Hong Kong. My British friends explained that the Brits value their privacy too much to allow the government to possess their personal data. That sounded both amazing and ridiculous to me. “So you’d rather pay for people from overseas to come and abuse your public health system than hand over your name and date of birth to the government? Plus, the government already has most of that info via birth certificates, passports and driver’s licences anyway,” I queried. A lawyer friend then gave me a lecture on how much the British culture values individual liberty – with privacy as a key component – and why none of the political parties want to even mention an ID system. I sort of understand the theory behind the argument but still think it’s a bit out-of-date and wasteful in reality.

That conversation made me realise the drastic difference between the British and Chinese views on the issue of privacy. We Chinese don’t value privacy as much – probably because we never had it in the first place. Since the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD), China has been run by a sophisticated bureaucracy that facilitated the administration of its vast empire. The Communist government since 1949 has perfected the system through the hukou system (household registration) and ideological control.

I don’t remember when I first came across the concept of privacy. Until age 14, I lived with my family of six in one Soviet-style apartment room of 12 square metres. We shared the kitchen and a toilet with another family of four. When I went to university in Beijing, I shared an even smaller dorm room with four other girls. It seems I had never really been alone until I went to the US for post-graduate education and finally had a room to myself. I was 23 years-old.

Of course, China has developed tremendously in the past three decades and today’s average Chinese enjoys more personal living space, as well as a certain level of privacy. However, many people still don’t distinguish between the concepts of privacy and secrecy. The prevailing sentiment remains: “only bad people who have things to hide value secrecy and privacy”. That may explain why the Chinese are embracing new technologies with a gusto, especially in facial recognition, fintech, Big Data, social media and e-commerce. WiC has reported extensively on these areas, including stories on Alibaba’s mind-boggling $25.4 billion of sales from this year’s Single’s Day (see WiC388) and China’s leading position as a cashless society (see WiC386). When it comes to sharing their personal data, China has the ultimate ‘sharing economy’ – a situation its tech giants clearly benefit from.

All of this shared data creates great efficiencies when it comes to shopping or riding bullet trains. And most Chinese I know seem willing to accept the benefits of this without thinking too much about the potential downsides. Over in the UK, I see the opposite view at work.

A native Chinese who grew up in northeastern China, Mei attended an elite university in Beijing in the late 1980s and graduate school in the US in the early 1990s. Over two decades she has worked in the US, Hong Kong and mainland China, both in the media and with two global investment banks, where she has honed her bicultural perspective. If you’d like to ask her a question, send her an email at [email protected]


Keeping track, Apr 6, 2018: In issue 390 our columnist Mei debated whether the Chinese are more open to trading away their online privacy provided it makes life more efficient. At the China Development Forum last week that debate was reignited by Robin Li, the boss of search engine and AI firm Baidu. In a discussion about developments in artificial intelligence and the country’s ability to generate Big Data, he commented: “In the past few years, China has been strengthening law enforcement. But I also think that Chinese are more open to privacy issues, or less sensitive. If they exchange privacy, they get convenience, efficiency and safety. In many cases, they are willing to do so.”

This prompted a backlash with Jiangsu TV commenting: “What gives Robin Li the confidence to say that and what makes him feel he is qualified to represent the ‘Chinese’?” It added: “It is not that Chinese would like to ‘exchange privacy for convenience’ but that they have no other choice in most cases”. There were also complaints on Sina Weibo, with one netizen saying of Baidu: “You cash in on users by stealing their privacy and pushing them into evil-minded hospitals. This is what you’ve been doing with all that Big Data.” This was a reference to a healthcare-related advertising scandal that led to a student’s death in 2016 (see WiC324).

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