Is privacy less valued in Asia?

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, some Western media outlets have been quick to dismiss lockdown and surveillance systems used in East and Southeast Asia as measures that never could be deployed or supported in the West. These beliefs are briskly being swept under the rug. Nonetheless, the question remains; why are many countries in East and Southeast Asia, with their different cultures and political systems, generally more susceptible to greater surveillance?

South Korea

As covered in our article this week about South Korea, the push for greater surveillance there was public-led. The government faced public criticism for its withholding of information on infections during the 2015 MERS outbreak, which infected 186 and killed 36. The new system makes good use of the government’s new powers and is complemented by South Korea’s high level of digital literacy; South Korea has the highest proportion of cashless transactions in the world and one of the highest phone ownership rates.


In Singapore, it is also down to feasibility. The Singaporean system tracks and quarantines those who have come into close contact with someone who has tested positive, meaning Singapore has managed to avoid a complete lockdown. The system is popular because it is successful, but it cannot be easily replicated elsewhere; Singapore has less than 10% of the land area of Wuhan alone. It was also able to manage its surveillance system with the help of its army, the third-largest in the world per capita.


In China, though many were angry with the initial coverup in Wuhan, the success of the government’s strategy in containing COVID-19 has received widespread support and renewed confidence. 

Research by Genia Kostka from Freie Universität Berlin found that Chinese social credit systems, which use numerous types of data to steer the behaviour of Chinese citizens, have a high degree of approval because many interpret the systems as promoting honest dealings in society and the economy instead of privacy violation. 

Similarly, in her 16-month ethnographic study of smartphones and smart ageing, Xinyuan Wang of University College London found that the people she spoke to seemed less concerned about giving up some privacy if it meant a significantly higher degree of security and certainty. China has experienced a rising number of fraud cases and scams, and has suffered major scandals in food safety and medicine.

Nevertheless, there has been some pushback on the rapidly expanding use of facial recognition in China, leading to a zoo in Hangzhou withdrawing its use of facial recognition after losing a lawsuit. Soon after this, a proposal was released by the National Information Security Standardization Technical Committee, which requires consent or justification for the use of all facial recognition technology.

Credit: Liu Yi/Sixth Tone

A crossroads

Surveillance infrastructure is not necessarily evil in itself. Yuval Noah Harari, author of the New York Times top ten bestseller “Sapiens”, recently wrote an article for the Financial Times about his take on COVID-19 and the world ahead. Reflecting on the use of surveillance in places such as South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan, Harari said: “While these countries have made some use of tracking applications, they have relied far more on extensive testing, on honest reporting, and on the willing co-operation of a well-informed public”. Surveillance is evolving rapidly every day, and it is our responsibility to encourage its fair use.

Hariri’s article is not behind the Financial Times’ paywall. You can read it in full here.

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