Global Privacy in Flux: Illuminating Privacy Across Cultures in China and the U.S.

Kenneth Neil Farrall


Globally, privacy is under threat. To many in academia, there is little hope in preserving active domains of seclusion, secrecy or anonymity within an increasingly risk averse, surveillance-networked, global society. Further, scholars within the field of surveillance studies have suggested that too much of a focus on the definitionally elusive concept “privacy” may, in fact, severely handicap otherwise beneficial policy initiatives. Lyon (2007), for example, argues that privacy varies widely across time and individual cultures, and carries additional entailments such as possessive individualism and atomistic individuality that limit its effectiveness.

Although privacy in American discourse over the past several decades has accrued a formidably complex semantic field, this paper argues that a privacy concept, sufficiently abstract to abide universal pluralism, can serve global communication interests. By exploring the interrelationships between the English word “privacy,” its standard Mandarin Chinese translation, “yinsi,” and portions of their respective semantic fields, this paper demonstrates a potential role for privacy in discourses of resistance. Over the past ten years, as the diffusion of information, communication, and surveillance technologies has accelerated in China, “yinsi” has become more salient. Ironically, according to Privacy International's 2007 International Privacy Ranking, China now has better statutory legal protection for individual privacy than the United States. Challenging the proposition that cross-cultural variations in meaning render the concept impotent, the work leverages Irwin Altman's abstract definition of privacy as a dynamic negotiation afforded by the availability of “boundary resources.”

Simple equation of “privacy” with “yinsi” restricts potential dialog between China and English-speaking cultures such as the U.S. The paper explores interactions between the broader semantic fields of these two words via three examples: 1) the notion of “reasonable expectation of privacy”; 2) the public-private divide and 3) the meaning and role of anonymity. The paper argues 1) that contemporary and historical experience of the Chinese people have innovative normative, technological, and perhaps even legal “boundary resources” to offer global discourses of resistance; and 2) that abstract, dynamic, dialogic approaches to theorizing privacy and its benefits can help to bridge cultural differences. Against apparent odds, such discourse can strengthen privacy interests in the 21st century.

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