China to Extend Microblogging Requirements

As part of a broader information strategy unveiled this week, the top official at China’s State Council Information Office announced nationwide expansion plans for recently implemented regulations that require microbloggers to register their identities with the government. From The New York Times:

The official, Wang Chen, said at a news conference that registration trials in five major eastern Chinese cities would continue until wrinkles were worked out. But he said that eventually all 250 million users of microblogs, called weibos here, would have to register, beginning first with new users.

Mr. Wang indicated that under the program, users could continue to use nicknames online, even though they would still be required to register their true identities.

The announcement was long expected. Because the registration rules apply to Internet companies — most of which are in Beijing or the other four cities covered under the trial — the practical effect is to certify that the government will now formally require those companies to register all users of weibos eventually. Some users and analysts had suggested that such a requirement would be met with a public outcry. In fact, the response has been comparatively muted.

The regulations, designed to stop the spread of online rumors and aid a more forceful approach to information control on the Internet, require microblog users to give their real names to site administrators before they can post. Such regulations have taken shape amid an increased government focus on containing the activities of China’s growing number of Internet users. The government “is pushing the danger argument hard” in its push to contain Internet chatter, Tsinghua University’s David Lundquist writes in The Diplomat, questioning whether China can control social media:

Beijing might be miscalculating if it thinks it can control social media without dealing it a severe, perhaps mortal blow. Facebook clone Renren might continue to serve students without much controversy (that is, as long as they aren’t Tibetan, Uyghur or Mongolian, some of whom have logged-on during times of social unrest only to find their accounts locked and unusable).

Micro-blogging is different. Brevity and agility allows information to be distributed and consumed in a snap. Its popularity is undeniable, with user numbers more than quadrupling in the last twelve months. Given the sheer speed and volume of information it offers, China might just have no choice but to neutralize it and live to fight another day.

Micro-blogging is primarily a means of social and political communication, but it’s also an indicator of societal discontent. Given that the latter won’t stop any time soon, netizens could move onto other means of communication, further from the controls of the state, like VPNs and other firewall-jumping technology that many Chinese currently find expensive or unnecessary. If that happens, Beijing will rue the day when it leveled a building block of a sturdy, modern civil society, relegating its more engaged and perceptive citizens to the internet’s more distant locales.