The other face heavily tilts towards an ill-defined national security and the interests of the state. In fact, national security now includes cyber and data security over a range of sectors, including the economy, "social stability" and welfare. The new Data Security Law places a systematic and unspecified control over cross-border transfer of "critical" and "important" data, with heavy penalties to boot. The state wants complete control over the digital companies that collect and handle data. In the words of one Chinese commentator, "no internet giant should be allowed to be a super database of Chinese people's personal information that holds more detailed information than the state, let alone be given free access to that data". The CCP has always exercised its control over individuals through the information files it accumulates. China’s giant internet platforms, each of them gathering personal data simultaneously over many sectors, could one day have far better and faster access and control over people’s lives. China’s experts on the digital economy and social media are sophisticated and they understand the fragmentation and personalization of data markets underway very well. For marketing purposes, more knowledge is never enough, as Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism so well demonstrates.
The taming of China’s internet companies, the measures limiting the collection and use of personal data by these companies, and the practical reinforcement of the state’s intervention into data in the name of national security are proceeding simultaneously and at full speed. Hundreds of apps are taken down for illegal data collection: among the most interesting targets is BOSS (Zhipin), one of the new job seeking apps that collects CVs and professional data. After known instances of Chinese cyberhacking into the personnel files of US civil servants, it is fair to assume that China has reason to fear reciprocity. Regulations are also appearing daily - on automotive data, on facial recognition, and on cybersecurity requirements for companies with more than one million users planning an IPO abroad.
The whole range of new rules and control over the digital sector in China deserves our full attention. They combine developments that critics of the digital age are seeking in democracies - anti-monopoly, measures for new entrants, consumer protection, and even rights that emulate some aspects of the EU’s GDPR. Yet they also signal the submersion of China’s digital entrepreneur class under the state. And there are enough rules or loopholes in the name of national security to ensure that the Party-State retains an absolute monopoly over the collected data and its possible usage: whatever limitation is put in place does not apply to the state.
Perhaps, most strikingly, many of the new measures amplify the financial and data separation of China’s entire digital platform industry from the rest of the world. What was allowed when not forbidden is now forbidden unless allowed.
It is not clear what the response from China’s public will be. At present, it seems quite muted. It is entirely possible that the Chinese are fatalistic about state control over their lives, and will merely balance the conveniency of using China’s pervasive platforms - as we do with GAFAs - with the desirability of some restraints against the commercial use of their personal data.
Copyright: Greg Baker / AFP