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 email@example.com.
(China Daily 10/20/2010 page8)