The fourth draft of the law on citizens' identity cards is being examined at the ongoing session of the Standing Committee of the 10th Chinese National People's Congress, which started on Monday.
One of the most conspicuous differences between this and previous drafts is the addition of clauses protecting citizens' personal information.
The latest draft states that public security authorities should keep secret personal information on citizens that they have collected while producing, issuing, checking and detaining their identity cards. Leaking such information will constitute an infringement of citizens' rights and result in legal action. Serious violations might even result in criminal prosecution.
Personal information was scarcely a concern in the old days, when collective interests overwhelmed individual rights.
The draft law's inclusion of a guarantee on citizens' privacy is a fresh hallmark of the State's recognition of civic rights.
The right to privacy has also been written into the section on personal rights in the country's first draft civil code, which is also now under review.
But there is still a long way to go before individual rights are fully protected.
People are sometimes asked to give out personal information, only to find it has been leaked for commercial use without their consent.
We receive junk mail specifically addressed to us. Strange sales staff approaches us, already familiar with our personal details. Our lives have been disrupted by all these unpleasant and sometimes unbearable intrusions.
Some government offices and institutions also show little respect for people's privacy. The personal data they have collected while performing their official duties are casually disclosed or even intentionally sold.
Accurate information is essential in many cases for public welfare. That is partly why we are asked to co-operate on more and more occasions. But people's increasing reluctance to share personal information with the authorities reflects their doubts over the authorities' inclination to abuse their trust.
This has a lot to do with the absence of legal liability on the official side. As long as we have to share some of our personal information, the government and its officials should be placed under a legal obligation to safeguard our privacy.
The new draft law is only a welcome first step awaiting extensive follow-up action, given the widespread lack of guarantees over personal information in our society.
(China Daily June 27, 2003)