China’s souped-up data privacy laws deter researchers

China's souped-up data privacy laws deter researchers

China has proposed changes to its list of prohibited and restricted export technologies, including techniques related to cell cloning and gene editing in humans, CRISPR, synthetic biology and crop breeding.Credit: Noel Celis/AFP/Getty

Recently introduced restrictions on the flow of academic and health data from China are concerning researchers globally, who say the new rules, as well as the uncertainty surrounding them, are discouraging international collaborations with scientists in the country. Others, fearing that access to information could be stymied, are opting not to work on projects about China or its people.

The suite of regulations, which have been introduced gradually since 2021, includes cybersecurity assessments of personal information and genetic data sent overseas, and restrictions on the export of biotechnology know-how in CRISPR–Cas9 gene-editing technology, synthetic biology and crop breeding. China is also considering limits on the amount of human genetic data that can be sent to other countries.

“The signal has been very clear that China does not want its scientists to collaborate as freely as they used to with foreigners,” says Joy Zhang, a sociologist at the University of Kent, UK, who organizes forums with Chinese researchers to facilitate collaboration.

Privacy concerns

In November 2021, China’s Personal Information Protection Law (PIPL) came into effect. The law is designed to prevent companies — and others who gather data on individual people — from misusing their customers’ personal information. It is akin to the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Zhang says that privacy protections are a necessary development in China. Many Chinese hospitals lack the cybersecurity infrastructure to safeguard patient data against privacy violations, she says.

Another measure was added last September: companies and institutions that send personal data, such as customer details or information on clinical-trial participants, to people outside mainland China must undergo a data-export security assessment. The assessments, carried out by the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), are designed to protect personal data as well as sensitive information related to national security. Chinese companies and universities planning to export data must either apply for a certification or, starting in June, have a contract with the receiving organization that guarantees the data will be stored appropriately and processed only as specified in the contract.

Ziwen Tan, a lawyer at the China Securities Regulatory Commission in Beijing, who has studied the PIPL, says the security assessments provide practical guidance for managing exported medical and health data and promote international medical-research cooperation. “The Chinese government does not hold a blanket negative attitude towards providing data to foreign countries,” says Tan.

But Zhang says that the rules are problematic for international researchers whose work relies on access to data or collaborators in China.

Organizations were given six months to comply with the export requirements. The first two approvals for data export were announced in January. At the time, more than 270 applications were pending, according to a report in the Global Times, the flagship newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party.

Knowledge platform restricted

One resource affected by the new regulations is the China National Knowledge Infrastructure (CNKI), China’s largest academic database. CNKI documents include millions of Chinese-language journal articles, some dating back to 1915; master’s and PhD theses; conference proceedings; newspapers; government statistics and patents. On 1 April, the CNKI suspended foreign access to portions of its database, including annual statistics gathered by provincial governments, national census data, conference proceedings and theses. The CNKI said that the suspension was in accordance with the new rules on data export. There is no indication of when access might resume. The CNKI did not respond to Nature’s request for comment.

This isn’t the first time that access to the CNKI has been tightened. In 2020, online sleuths trying to find clues about the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic used the CNKI to identify a master’s thesis that described a pneumonia-like illness in six miners “caused by SARS-like [coronavirus] from the Chinese horseshoe bat or other bats”. Shortly after the sleuths posted that thesis and a PhD thesis containing similar information online, CNKI access was altered to prevent similar searches.

And last June, the CAC launched a cybersecurity review of the CNKI because of the extensive data, some of which are considered sensitive, that it holds. They include personal information, as well as data related to national defence, telecommunications, natural resources, health care, scientific and technological achievements and key technology trends.

Sarah Rogers, a geographer at the University of Melbourne in Australia who studies development in rural China, says that the CNKI suspension has removed an important source of data on crop yields and average income at the provincial level. “Given the impossibility of field research in recent years, this just further reduces foreign scholars’ capacity to understand what’s going on,” she says.

The suspension of CNKI services “could restrict the ability of scholars outside of China to obtain information related to Chinese academia, culture, technology and other fields of study”, says Tan.

Zhang says that the resource is predominantly used by social scientists, so “it is definitely to China’s own detriment that social scientists outside of China can’t access all these data”.

Research data

It is unclear what impact the data-export requirements will have on researchers who conduct clinical research in China. The GDPR includes exemptions that allow data to be shared among researchers. But PIPL has no such exemption. “The Chinese data-export system is still developing,” says Henry Gao, a legal scholar at the Singapore Management University. “The Chinese authorities themselves are still working out the details.”

One concern for researchers in the life sciences, says Zhang, are draft restrictions on export of human genetic data, released last year by the Ministry of Science and Technology. If implemented in full, the restrictions would require security clearance for the export of such data.

The Chinese government has not responded to Nature‘s enquiries.

Technologies considered to be of national importance are also in the sights of the Chinese government. Last December, the Ministry of Commerce published proposed changes to its list of technologies whose export is prohibited or restricted. Seven were added to the revised list, including technologies related to cell cloning and gene editing in humans, CRISPR gene editing, synthetic biology and crop breeding, as well as bulk material handling, photovoltaic silicon wafer preparation and remote-sensing lidar systems.

Discouraging moves

The tightened regulations reflect “the wider digital decoupling underway between China and Western countries”, says Ben Hillman, a political scientist at the Australian National University in Canberra. “The restrictions are part of a broader censorship programme designed to make it difficult for foreigners to conduct critical analysis of public policy and politics in China,” he says.

Gao says that, if it is too difficult for foreign researchers to navigate Chinese rules and regulations, they will be discouraged from collaborating with Chinese researchers.

In one such example, a student of Zhang’s who was studying fertility and gender in China decided to switch to a project focusing on the same topic in the United Kingdom. “We started to worry about her access to data,” says Zhang.

Stuart Gietel-Basten, a demographer at Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi, says that accessing data from China has been increasingly difficult. For example, some fertility-related data are no longer publicly available, he says. “They are not published, or at least made accessible any more, so that makes it harder to cross-check things.”

A further, more insidious effect of the laws, says Zhang, is that the added regulations create a mentality for Chinese researchers to “think twice” before facilitating foreign colleagues’ access to data. The changing mood is already preventing Chinese scholars from openly discussing their work in public forums outside China, she says. “It is 10 times harder than it was 20 years ago,” to get Chinese speakers at research forums, says Zhang, “because everyone needs to double check with themselves and with institutions whether or not they can talk.”

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