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Getting to know China's reality

[ 2010-10-20 13:05]     字号 [] [] []  
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My last column commented on some people's arguments for safeguarding passengers' privacy in their opposition to surveillance cameras being installed in taxis. After its publication in China Daily's web edition, quite a number of readers wrote online comments.

Interestingly, the numbers of those for and against were nearly equal. While the comments in favor included a couple by Chinese nationals, those opposing the cameras appeared to be exclusively made by expats, judging by their IDs and language style.

I seldom respond to online comments, especially critical ones, attached to my column. But I would like to say a few words this time, because I feel the mindsets behind these comments show the stark differences between Chinese and Western thinking.

Most of the foreign commentators expressed the concern that installing surveillance cameras inside taxis would herald more government intrusion into people's private lives. This worry is understandable, because Westerners treasure personal privacy and freedom of expression as the most essential part of human rights.

"Is the use of video cameras inside taxis to monitor morals or conversations?" commented one.

"How can we be sure the technology will be used for crime-prevention and not for some other nefarious purpose? The answer is - we can't," wrote another.

I believe, and appreciate, the sincerity of these commentators in their concern for Chinese people's human rights. I fully respect these friends for their concern. But I have to point out that this typically reflects a prejudiced understanding of China, which stems from a stereotyped Cold War image of the country.

My study of history has been too limited for me to conclude whether a ubiquitous monitoring of citizens' conversations and behavior ever existed, or to what extent it was practiced in China in the times before I became an adult in the early 1960s. However, during the period from my early adulthood till the end of the 1970s when China embarked on the reform drive, I have memories of being required to report my thoughts to "organizations" and of my schoolmates or work unit colleagues having their "wrong-doings" exposed by their pals.

In those days, people were cautious indeed if they wanted to voice opinions contradicting the dominant ideology. There were definitely restrictions on "freedom of speech". But even then, I never saw or knew of any technological means being used to monitor people's private lives.

Things have changed dramatically during the past three decades and the practice of "reporting to the organizations" has been abandoned forever. Citizens now enjoy considerably more freedom in saying what they want.

Log on to any Chinese website and you will see all sorts of remarks posted in chat rooms, forums and blogs, ranging from criticism of the government to discussions of sexual experiences. Even printed media frequently carry articles criticizing government decisions. Though, it should be said, such freedom of speech is still different with that defined in the West.

Ordinary Chinese citizens do harbor a number of grievances against the government at different levels on certain issues. But if somebody told them that the government is taking technological measures to peep into their private lives, they would not believe it.

So, let's return to the taxi camera controversy; our foreign friends, such as those mentioned above, may find it hard to believe that most Chinese readers supported the decision to install surveillance cameras in taxis. No doubt they are puzzled as to why so many Chinese people would willingly surrender their privacy in such a situation.

But such is the case.

There are two reasons that account for this:

First, sacrificing individual interests for the sake of the public, or communal, interests is still inherent in Chinese culture. People do not find it particularly irksome to be exposed before a gazing lens during a relatively short ride, when doing so is part of one's duty to society. Second, the current social conditions are not orderly and safe enough for people to disregard what has proven to be an effective means of protection from possible dangers or crimes.

The right to privacy is certainly valuable, but in China there are things that need to be more urgently protected, for instance, the right to enjoy a safe life.

The author is Assistant Editor-in-Chief of China Daily. You can reach him at liushinan@chinadaily.com.cn.

About the author:

刘式南 高级编辑。1968年毕业于武汉华中师范学院(现华中师范大学)英文系。1982年毕业于北京体育学院(现北京体育大学)研究生院体育情报专业。1982年进入中国日报社,先后担任体育记者、时政记者、国际新闻编辑、要闻版责任编辑、发稿部主任、《上海英文星报》总编辑、《中国商业周刊》总编辑等职。现任《中国日报》总编辑助理及专栏作家。1997年获国务院“特殊贡献专家政府津贴”。2000年被中华全国新闻工作者协会授予“全国百佳新闻工作者”称号。2006年获中国新闻奖二等奖(编辑)。


Road tragedies scream for ethics and rules

Ideals certainly make a difference

Unions must protect, not placate

Work toward fighting social injustice

(作者刘式南 中国日报网英语点津 编辑陈丹妮)