Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Mass Communication and Media Arts

First Advisor

Kavita, Karan


Privacy has been an academic concern, ethical issue and legislative conundrum. No other factors have shaped the understanding of privacy as much as the development of technologies – be it the invention of press machines, telephones or cameras. With the diffusion of mobile Internet, social media, the Internet of Things and the penetration of devices such as smartphones, the global positioning system, surveillance cameras, sensors and radio frequency identification tags, Big Data, designed to economically extract value from a huge amount and variety of data, has been accumulating exponentially since 2012. Data-driven businesses collect, combine, use, share and analyze consumers’ personal information for business revenues. Consumers’ shopping habits, viewing habits, browsing history and many other online behaviors have been commodified. Never before in history had privacy been threatened by the latest communication technologies as it is today. This dissertation aims to study some of the rising issues of technology and businesses that relate to privacy in China, a rising economic power of the East. China is a country with Confucian heritage and governed under decades of Communist leadership. Its philosophical traditions and social fabric have shaped the perception of privacy since more than 2,000 years ago. “Private” was not taken as negative but being committed to the public or the greater good was an expected virtue in ancient China. The country also has a long tradition of peer surveillance whether it was under the baojia system or the later-on Urban and Rural Residents’ Committees. But after China adopted the reform and open-up policy in 1978, consumerism has inspired the new Chinese middle class to pursue more private space as a lifestyle. Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent are globally top-ranking Chinese Internet companies with huge numbers of users, tractions and revenues, whose businesses depend heavily on consumers’ personal data. As a response to the increase of consumer data and the potential intrusion of privacy by Internet and information service providers (IISPs), the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, a regulator of China’s Internet industry, enacted laws to regulate the collection and use of personal information by the IISPs. Drawing upon the literature and privacy theories of Westin, Altman and Nissenbaum and the cultural theory of Hofstede, this study investigated the compliance of Chinese businesses’ privacy policies with relevant Chinese laws and the information provided in the privacy policies regarding the collection, use and disclosure of Internet users’ personal information; Chinese consumers’ privacy attitudes and actions, including the awareness, concerns, control, trust and trade-offs related to privacy; the differences among Chinese Fundamentalists, Pragmatists and Unconcerned using Core Privacy Orientation Index; and the conceptualization of privacy in present China. A triangulation of quantitative and qualitative methods such as case study, content analysis, online survey and semantic network analysis were employed to answer research questions and test hypotheses. This study found Chinese IISPs represented by Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent comply well with Chinese laws. Tencent provides the most information about the collection, use and disclosure of consumers’ personal information. Chinese consumers know little about Big Data technologies in terms of collecting their personal information. They have the most concerns about other individuals and the least about the government when their personal information is accessed without their knowledge. When their personal information is collected by online businesses, Chinese consumers’ have more concerns about their online chats, their images and emails and the fewer concerns about searches performed, websites browsed, shopping and viewing habits. Less than one-third of Chinese surveyed take pro-active measures to manage online privacy settings. Chinese consumers make more efforts to avoid being tracked by people who might criticize, harass, or target them; advertisers and hackers or criminals. They rarely make themselves invisible from government, law enforcement persons or people they are familiar with such as people from their past, family members and romantic partners. Chinese consumers are more trusting of the laws and regulations issued by the government than they are of online businesses to protect personal data. Chinese only trade privacy for benefits occasionally but when they see more benefits from privacy trade-offs, they have fewer concerns. To Chinese consumers, privacy means personal information, including but not limited to, family, home address, phone number, Chinese ID number, password to bank accounts and other online accounts, the leaking and disclosure of which without the owners’ consent to people whom they do not want the information to be known will result in a sense of insecurity.




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