China is Full Steam Ahead on Data Privacy

On January 8th, just a week after China’s Civil Code went into effect, the Hangzhou Internet Court heard and ruled on its first data privacy case. In this case, Sun, the defendant, sold more than 40,000 personal information records to Liu, who used this data for advertising. The records contained people’s full names, email addresses, and social media IDs. The procurator (like a U.S. federal prosecutor) determined that this action constituted an offense against the new privacy protections codified in the Civil Code.

The Civil Code is a decades-long culmination of legal developments in China. It covers the full scope of civil law, such as property rights, contracts, and family law. But among these traditional pillars, the considerably large section reserved for the protection of personal information stands out. In Chapter Six of Part Four, the Civil Code defines privacy as “a natural person’s peace of life and the private space, private activities and private information which he/she is unwilling to divulge.” Essentially, individuals and organizations are prohibited from calling, texting, messaging, and emailing others without their consent. The Civil Code also grants individuals the right to request data deletion or correction from information processors (e.g., social media platforms). These rights and prescriptions build on earlier Chinese cyber-focused legislation, such as the landmark Cybersecurity Law of 2017. In contrast, the Civil Code takes a much more prescriptive approach and incentivizes private citizens to seek legal recourse against privacy incursions.

The codification of data protections in such a principal document marks China’s legislative willingness to adopt privacy as a core value, like the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). By clearly defining what actions constitute as ‘data abuse,’ it limits the leverage of tech behemoths over individuals’ data. China’s meteoric rise in internet users—from 298 million in 2008 to 989 million in 2020—has necessitated guardrails on the digital economy. With personal data acting as a critical resource in the race to train artificial intelligence models, these new regulations are vital in ensuring that perverse economic incentives do not prevail.

That being said, China’s data regulation authorities have yet to fully mature (although in context, most national data protection structures are still nascent). On balance, China’s data protection framework leans towards national security, which may become a competing interest against “full privacy.” There are also several legal overlaps with previous data protection regulations. Without clear guidance from regulatory bodies, the legal ambiguity risks hindering innovation, as companies become wary of potential legal missteps. Further, it is unclear whether the protections laid out in the Civil Code supersede previous legislation or whether one should interpret them jointly.

To clear up some of these ambiguities, the Personal Information Protection Law (PIPL) is in the Chinese legislative pipeline. The current draft of the PIPL extends the information processor clauses in the Civil Code, proposing that processors must obtain individuals’ consent to share their data with 3rd parties. Almost any internet entity can fall under the “information processor” umbrella, so if this law is to be strictly enforced, it could create immense compliance burdens for technology companies. For example, many websites frequently contract with cloud providers to store and process data, which means they would have to redraft their terms and conditions and prompt users for renewed consent. But on the flip side, the PIPL disincentivizes the selling and reselling of personal data, which would strengthen privacy. Whichever side of the coin it lands on is still a long way’s off.

China’s commitment to fleshing out its data protection framework is evident. Its recent swift application points to an increase in welfare for China’s citizens. China’s convergence to the maturing GDPR framework signifies an eagerness to keep up with global privacy trends. Under the backdrop of increasing global scrutiny of large technology firms, it is worth paying attention to new data protection legislations. There are enough scarce resources in this world—privacy should not be one of them.


Tianjiu Zuo is from Hong Kong and is studying Public Policy and Economics.

Uighur Man in Demonstration

Forced Internment of Uighurs in Xinjiang, China

In Xinjiang, the north-west region of China, up to one million Uighurs are being detained in internment camps that have been legally recognized as legitimate re-education camps by the Chinese government. Uighurs are a predominantly Turkish speaking and Muslim minority in Xinjiang. Since the implementation of an anti-terrorist campaign in Xinjiang in 2014, the number of Uighurs arrested and detained has increased substantially and continues to grow. Although the existence of these internment camps was initially denied by the Chinese government, the government now recognizes and legitimize the camps as “vocational skills and educational training centers” through updated legislation. This new form of legal recognition and substantiation for the region of Xinjiang’s actions marks a shift in the Chinese government’s attitude towards the camps, suggesting a sense of ownership rather than shame. Yet, the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China calls these camps “the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today.”

Initially, the Chinese government denied the existence of these internment camps, instead replying to international criticism that they were sending petty criminals to “education and training centers.” However, there had long been international skepticism that the Chinese government is detaining hundreds of thousands of Uighurs and believes that they are associated with extremist actions and terrorism. Recently, the Chinese government updated their legal policy to officially legitimize and recognize these camps, affirming the skepticism of international human rights organizations. However the government has yet to fully admit the true purpose of the camps or what actually occurs inside the confines. Additionally, the government declined to release information regarding both the number of camps in existence as well as how many people are currently being held in the camps, although the number of people in the camps is estimated to be around one million.

These internment camps, also known as re-education camps according to the Chinese government, were created for Uighur Muslims specifically in Xinjiang who the Chinese government believe are influenced by extremism. The camps are heavily secured through prison-like surrounding walls, security fences, extensive surveillance systems, watch towers, and are guarded by armed forces, none of which suggest that these camps are merely education centers. Recently, a Chinese TV station gave a look inside the camps. The propagandist TV program revealed students studying a variety of nationalistic topics such as Mandarin, job-relevant skills, and China’s various legal codes. Additionally, a young woman who was interviewed in the video testified that she didn’t know where she’d be if she wasn’t at the camp, and that she perhaps “would have followed those religious extremists into a life of crime.” No other source of media has been allowed inside the camps. Detainees who have been released from the camps describe them differently, reporting forced activities such as listening to lectures and singing hymns praising the Chinese Communist Party in order to remove any devotion to Islam. Some sources have also suggested that there is both physical and mental torture in the camps, and that those who do not follow the rules exactly or cannot remember the words to a hymn are deprived of meals. There are also testimonials of former detainees who have testified to the brainwashing and humiliation, along with torture, that occurs in the confinements of the camps.

Chinese legal authorities have now updated legislation to legalize these re-education camps and in doing so have openly admitted to the existence of these camps. This revision, issued by the regional legislature, recognizes the camps’ usage as part of the Chinese government’s overall efforts to eliminate “religious extremism” in Xinjiang. Examples of behavior included in the new legislation that could result in detainment include practicing the Islamic concept of Halal to areas outside of diet, refusing to watch state TV channels and listen to state radio, as well as preventing children from receiving a state education. There have been laws in the past that have also pushed this anti-extremist agenda to suppresses the Uighur population of Xinjiang, including a ban in 2017 on men growing “abnormally” long beards or wearing veils in public locations. Further, there have been laws which ban the promotion of religion, which extend to something as simple as having an unusual name.

The scope of the human rights violations occurring in Xinjiang hasn’t been seen in China for over 50 years since the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The occurrences in Xinjiang have gained attention from the United Nations, specifically the UN Responsibility to Protect. The UN Responsibility to Protect, or R2P, is a commitment by the United Nations to “end the worst forms of violence and persecution,” specifically by helping populations at risk for genocide and taking action against war crimes and crimes against humanity. R2P doesn’t seek to impose upon another state’s sovereignty, but rather aims to protect populations against human rights violations when the state’s ability to do so is incapacitated or if the state itself is the one committing human rights violations. It is difficult to determine the degree to which the internment of Uighurs in Xinjiang falls under the purview of R2P, as well as if other states can and should intervene in the situation. However, with enough global and social pressure and the possibility of external investigation, the Chinese government could potentially close the camps to uphold their international reputation. Through China’s new legalization and public recognition of the camps, more social pressure, both from the public eye as well as the international humans rights community, will be placed on the Chinese government to end the oppression of Uighurs in Xinjiang.

Chloe Meyers is a sophomore at Duke from Los Angeles, California. She is studying Environmental Science and Policy and Psychology.