By David Bandurski — At CMP we have continuously covered China’s national legislation on openness of government information, its promises and challenges. But the flip side of the push to make more of certain types of information public in China is the uphill battle to keep personal data private. [Frontpage image from budgetstockphoto.com].
As news bubbles up once again that China is moving ahead with a new law protecting private information, columnist Chang Ping writes at Southern Weekend about the need to make both priorities – openness and privacy – work hand in hand.
“Public Should be Public, Private Should be Private” (公开该公开的，保密该保密的)
By Chang Ping (长平)
August 27, 2008
Just as I was preparing to write this piece I received a letter notifying me that I had won 180,000 yuan in prize money, and I couldn’t help myself, I had to know if this was real or not. Before I’d had a chance to read through it my mobile phone rang. It was a telemarketer selling insurance policies. No sooner had I politely broken off her sweet spiel than I got the ring that signaled that an instant message was coming in. The message urged me not to worry myself over fake receipts (for expense reimbursement purposes) and said I should contact Ms. Liu post haste. This isn’t my problem alone. According to one study by China Central Television, 74 percent of those interviewed reported being harassed after having their personal information leaked . . .
Well, thankfully we’ve learned from various media in recent days that the draft version of the “Law on Protection of Personal Information” (个人信息保护法) has been put to the State Council, and that this draft stipulates that no group (团体) may release personal information to a third party without the consent of the person concerned, except for the purposes of criminal investigation, tax assessment or press supervision (媒体调查).
Along with these good tidings we have had a whole series of editorials expressing praise and eager expectation. These editorials testify once again to the importance of protection of personal information. I feel optimistic that this time it is for real. Why do I say “once again” and “this time”? Because, as people concerned about this issue should know, ever since 2003 many media, including Xinhua News Agency, have come out with reports about a law to protect personal information. This has happened one, two, three times maybe.
According to these reports, it was in 2003 that the State Council charged relevant experts with beginning the drafting process, and an expert proposal had already been completed by 2005 and submitted to the State Council for deliberation, kicking off the law-making process. From the beginning, the news of this process drew universal praise from the public, and media looked into the various methods of developed nations, thoroughly explaining the concept of private information and why it must be protected. Of course, these explanations seemed increasingly redundant, coming as they did amid a worsening climate of personal information leaking. Many people have tasted the bitterness of this problem, which has become a matter of absolute urgency for ordinary people.
Every year at the national “two meetings” there have been People’s Congress delegates speaking out about the problem. In 2006, for example, NPC delegate Zhang Xuedong (张学东) said in an interview with a Xinhua reporter: “The leaking and abuse of the personal information of citizens of our country has already reached urgency, and it has become imperative that we implement a law on protection of private information.” This year NPC delegate Sun Guihua (孙桂华) told a Xinhua reporter: “The leaking of personal information has already become a general social menace and moving quickly toward a law on protection of private information is an urgent task before us.”
What we need to notice in these reports and editorials is that we have not seen any note of opposition whatsoever. According to China’s Legislative Law and on the basis of practical experience, it is possible to limit deliberation in cases where there is relative unanimity over legislation in order to speed up the legislative process, and we long ago reached the point of urgency on this matter. Well then, why is it exactly that with the draft already done that we are still dragging our feet through the deliberation and voting process?
Any act of legislation has a process to go through, and perhaps five years is not a particularly long period of time. But we should let the people know where exactly it stands. Within this time we have had the “Ordinance on Openness of Government Information” take effect. According to this ordinance, this matter [of law-making], which “concerns the vested interests of citizens, legal persons or other organizations,” and moreover “reflects the set-up, functions and work procedures of administrative organs,” should be make public. Naturally, legislation is only partly a matter for the government and is more so a matter for the People’s Congress. Government information should be made public, and information about legislative matters should be made public too.
Much information about law-making has already been made public. And recently we also had the good news that in the future, the decision of the Chairman’s Meeting of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress as well as legislative drafts under deliberation by the NPC Standing Committee will be made public so that feedback can be solicited from society at large. A commonsense understanding of law and politics would suggest that we should not only make public the text of legislation but also make public the legislative process itself, that we should not only make public the law-making process, but also make public the views of all of the various delegates participating in the legislative process.
While information that should not be made public continues to be made available, information that should be made public is not being released in a timely manner. The consensus in society today is that “openness be the rule and secrecy the exception” (公开是原则，保密是例外) in public affairs, and for personal privacy this is reversed, “the rule is secrecy, the exception is release.” Here with us, these two principles have been reversed. Only if they switch positions can we really and truly solve this problem.
[Posted by David Bandurski, August 28, 2008, 4:37pm HK]