In the autumn and winter, there were new cases of confirmed corona pneumonia in individual cities. The release of the trajectories of some confirmed cases, such as a woman in Chengdu and an elderly man in Shenyang, who “wandered around the city” during the onset of the disease and even violated the “14+14” home isolation regulations, has sparked public debate.
The most debated issue is the leakage of citizens’ personal privacy and personal information. It is important to point out that the diagnosed patients themselves are unfortunately patients first and foremost, not criminals. It is necessary for the flow investigation and epidemic prevention and control authorities to release specific information about confirmed patients for the sake of epidemic prevention and control. At the same time, the scope of information to be released should be strictly limited to what is necessary for outbreak control, such as travel and location information, and to avoid identifying individual patients by virtue of the information released alone or in combination with other information. For outbreak control, it is important to track the virus, not the patient. Even if the patient is tracked, it is ultimately about tracking the virus. For the public, it is only necessary to know that there are so many confirmed cases and their trajectories in order to protect themselves, and there is absolutely no need to identify them as specific individuals.
There is a problem with the protection of citizens’ personal information, but the specifics are much more complex. In the case of the old man in Shenyang, while it is true that his personal information should be protected and that netizens should not conduct body searches or even cyber bullying/violence against him, it is perfectly understandable that the public may not know who such a person is if he does not comply with the rules of epidemic prevention and control and runs around with a disease that affects the lives and even the livelihoods of ordinary citizens. But it is morally reprehensible to condemn such a person and even hold him accountable according to the law. Personal information protection protects the specific name and identity of the person from public condemnation, not the person who violates the law.
Because of their inability to make a distinction between the protection of citizens’ personal information and social and moral judgments, online public opinion, though lively, are often divided. Such controversies, to a greater extent, exacerbate disagreements and fuel emotional reactions to social issues. It should be recognized that human society is undergoing profound changes due to public health emergencies like the new corona epidemic, as well as new situations and issues such as nuclear proliferation, climate change, and cyberspace. The relationship between the individual , the collective and society is being redefined. For important nodes of virus transmission like the Chengdu lady and the Shenyang old man, the related controversies actually foreshadow that new adjustments may be needed in the relationship between people and society in the new problems confronting humanity in the new era
Thanks to technological advances and empowerment, one of the characteristics of humanity’s entering modern society since the industrial age has been the growth of individualism and personal freedom. Especially after World War II, fueled by the neo-liberalism originating in the United States, this individualism and freedom reached its peak and turned into supremacy of the individual. People began to pay more attention to their own freedom, feelings and way of life, and less concerned with others, the collective and society. It was in this sense that the French thinker Gonstant distinguished between the freedom of ancient man, who valued the collective, and the freedom of modern man, who valued independence of the individual.
However, thanks to the Internet, the world has truly become a global village, and cyberspace has become a whole new human space. And nuclear proliferation, climate change, cybercrime, and major infectious diseases are increasingly penetrating villages, cities, and nations, becoming problems that even the most powerful sovereign nations cannot solve alone. They must be addressed by individuals, societies, sovereign nations, the world, and all of humanity collectively. This is why we must move from a loose system of nations and a tight international system to a closer community of shared future for humankind.
Especially for a test like a major infectious disease epidemic, it is not only sovereign countries, international organizations, and the international community that must work together. Every citizen of the earth and each member of society should feel responsible,. The relationship between people and society is undergoing a redefinition. The individual supremacy that emerged in the industrial era and was pushed to the extreme to the point of distortion after World War II needs to be rethought seriously. We should understand individual freedom and rights more in terms of the connection between people, rather than the independence between people. This is what Yan Fu* meant a hundred years ago when he translated freedom as “the right of the group to itself. Realm of the power of the group
*(N.B. Editor’s Note: Yan Fu, 1854-1921, was the first Chinese translator of the works of liberals like Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Henry Huxley, Herbert Spencer, and Montesquieu, among others. He is considered to be the father of Chinese liberalism as the author of many commentaries and the celebrated “Learning from the West” and Meaning of Freedom.)
(The author is a researcher at the Institute of Law, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences)