SINGAPORE (Jan 15): For years, Chinese internet companies such as Tencent Holdings, Alibaba Group Holding and Baidu have had an unfair advantage over their Western counterparts such as Google parent Alphabet, Facebook and in that China’s lax privacy rules have allowed the country’s tech companies to harness Big Data and artificial intelligence (AI) a lot more powerfully.

To be sure, the Chinese do not mind being watched all the time because they have lived under state observation for generations. Beijing keeps dang’an, a file on every Chinese with data that includes school grades, traffic violations or reports from local neighbourhood watches. The advent of smartphones and instant messaging has just made monitoring people and gathering personal data a lot easier. Over the years, Beijing has tried hard to strike a balance between harnessing the internet for economic growth and using it as a security tool.

But even in China some things are still sacrosanct — such as private chats and messaging. On Jan 2, Li Shufu, chairman of passenger car giant Geely Automobile, blurted out loud at a public forum something that has been on everyone’s mind in China. “[Tencent founder] Pony Ma must be watching all our WeChat every day,” Li remarked. The following day, Tencent put out a strongly worded statement denying that it monitors, stores or uses data from private messenger chats for commercial purposes. China’s privacy and data debate was finally out in the open and it was a respected Chinese corporate leader — not some Western human rights group — doing all the talking.

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