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China’s Public (and Not so Public) Records

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I find it interesting how some countries grant wide access to government records on individuals and companies while others are far more restrictive. The United States is the most open of the countries of which I am aware. Here, things like divorces proceedings, birth records, corporate records and most things that happen in courts are generally available to just about anyone.

That is not the case in China.

In China, household and personal information, such as birth and death and marriage records, are difficult, if not impossible, to secure, legally. To check a household record, one needs to know the name, ID number and address of the relevant person. There is no general database that allows someone to find such a record with just fragmentary data. Beyond that, it is not legally possible for an unrelated party to view or copy personal information in China. This information is sealed and it is only revealed to the applicable party at their request.

Because of this, China private investigation service businesses are booming in China. Many of these companies use various illegal methods to get information.  Even these people need to know who they are looking for and where that person’s records are located since there is not a sufficient information base in China to allow for a generalized search for an individual based on fragmentary data such as their parents are supposed to be “so and so.” These investigators can check the household register of a known person to see whether or not a birth has been recorded. They can then check whether anyone with that name is registered in the same district. It is important to note that records are maintained by district. It therefore is not sufficient to say, “look in Hefei”; you need to know the specific district in which to look.

Corporate records and land records in China are generally reviewable by the public.

What are you seeing out there?

4 responses to “China’s Public (and Not so Public) Records”

  1. While the above is all true, centralization of certain records proceeding at an alarming pace. The PSB Entry-Exit system full of very detailed records of visas, address, workplace and movements both internationally and within China and extends for long periods backwards.
    The PSB residential registration system is digitized and appears quite sophisticated. While I fill in paper forms for registering my address at the local PSB, the staff then directly enter it on their system. Links to all family members and appears national not local.
    The Foreign Exchange management system contains details of every foreign currency transaction I’ve made for the past 3 years. I’m alarmed by how much detail there is when I see it all on the screen.
    What is more shocking is the absolute breaches of data privacy by both private companies, SOEs and Govt Departments. I pissed by having my intra-China movements and details on-sold by China Mobile staff within minutes arrival in another city in China. Very quickly I’m receiving SMS messages from private mobile numbers advertising hotels / flights etc. I’m less than impressed by certain English language Expat magazines that have on-sold my details to every expat focused business in China. Grossly unethical. I’m less than impressed that many of these businesses, including global 5 star hotel chains then choose to spam me endless email rubbish with zero opt out. Friends have been contacted by fraudsters using data that also certainly came from China’s Govt car registration system; ie. staff on-selling data on those systems.
    Back to Dan’s general point, this data is not available for enquiries by citizens regarding other citizens. However, for Govt or PSB officials the information they have regarding people resident in China is extensive and becoming more extensively linked and networked.

  2. Dan and Chris both make several excellent points. The only thing that I would add is that China may not be as technologically open in some instances, but the Chinese often know much more about each other than people in the US … and the Chinese all know it. Whereas in the US many people probably have no idea the extent to which their information is exposed to the world. Or if they do, they are too young to realize that their documented indiscretions may later haunt them. Perhaps this helps, to some limited extent, to explain why Chinese people are generally more circumspect than people here in the US.

  3. What expectations of privacy should a reasonable person have about information given to government agencies? And what about information given to private compaines?
    @Chris
    information you willingly give to private companies is obviously not going to guarded with the same safeguards as govt. info, but when you sign up for some online forum or give your info to personal companies, are there any disclaimers of privacy? Do they offer you any idea of what you can expect (per your info) after signing up? I was surprised to read that they offer you no “opt out” options. Do you know what are the laws governing this kind of thing, the selling of private info but non govt agencies, or by SOEs?
    I haven’t lived in or even been to China since Feb 2006 yet even last year I STILL got the occasional telemarketing call on my U.S. registered cell phone. They are all by Putonghua speaking callers who, when I tell them where I am, seem surprised that I am overseas, and last time I asked I was told (maybe not truthfully) that the young lady was in Hong Kong, if I recall correctly. Strange indeed! This is a number I got in a very heavily Chinese-populated city in Southern California, so maybe the cell phone shop where I signed up sells their data??

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