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VW Foundation Societal Transformation Grant: PRIVACY-CHINA


Volkswagen Foundation

01.07.2024 — 30.06.2027
Prof. Genia Kostka

Digitalisation constitutes one of the biggest societal transformations of our time, radically affecting how governments, citizens and firms interact while posing enormous threats and opportunities. The governance of private information lies at the core of how societies navigate this societal digital transformation: Which surveillance rights do we grant the state? What personal information is made accessible to private companies to train AI-models? 

China is currently experimenting with an enormous variety of data collection and analysis practices for social governance, including adoption of facial recognition systems, social credit pilots, and other AI-based censorship tools. Given its unrivalled experience with collecting private information, China offers immense insights into what digitalisation in European societies and world-wide might look like in the future and how it can be shaped. Learning from China is greatly inhibited, however, because most research into privacy has focused on Western democratic countries (Solove 2002; Nissenbaum 2009; Li et al. 2018). One reason consists of the common but inaccurate perception of authoritarian states such as China as ‘digital leviathans’ surveilling everything with little resistance (Jiang & Gao 2023). Emerging research into privacy under authoritarian regimes, while critically important, has so far mostly investigated internet users’ privacy choices (e.g. Li et al. 2018; Wolters et al. 2020) or specific technology adoptions, neglecting the broader legal, social, cultural and political contexts of privacy. 

Adopting an interdisciplinary approach, this project (PRIVACY-CHINA) analyses these multifaceted and complex legal, social, cultural and political contexts within which private information in China is disclosed, evaluated and governed. It further asks: How is and can this societal transformation be shaped by citizens, firms and governments in China? How can we address the perils of digitalisa-tion while at the same time harnessing its enormous benefits? Finally, how can the generated knowledge assist European societies in navigating the societal digital transformation?

In order to address the myriad meanings of privacy, this project employs an innovative multi-method approach including mediated narrative analysis of citizens’ online stories and posts (Page, 2018), analysis of online diaries (Watson & Lupton, 2020), web scraping for data collection of online posts, and interviews. Furthermore, the project employs an online experimental survey featuring list experiments, which addresses concerns of sensitivity and self-censorship. 

Developing a feature-length documentary and organizing two stakeholder conferences constitute the cornerstones of the project’s intense non-academic stakeholder engagement. 


  • China, societal transformations, governance of private information, research into privacy, interdisciplinary approach, multi-method approach, web scraping, experimental survey, interviews, feature-length documentary