Chinese Censors Lift the Veil on Bloggers

As the authorities tighten regulation of online speech by reinforcing real-name registration by Internet users, many people worry that the Internet as China’s last free speech zone might be desolated. From Nathan Green at Pando Daily:

With real name registration, the devolution of responsibility extends beyond the website operators and reaches individual users. When each Weibo post becomes tied to an identified person, then each individual user will be more likely to practice self-censorship with respect to their own posts.

Even without real name registration for user generated content websites, true anonymity on China’s internet does not exist for most users. When registering for home or business internet access, real name registration is already required. Seventy percent of mobile phone users also register with their real names according to China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, and the new rules suggest that the anonymous prepaid mobile phone cards will be phased out. Internet cafés are also required to record the real identity of each user. As a result, unless someone posting on Weibo is being very careful, the government already has the means to identify the author of an unwanted post. The six people arrested in connection with spreading rumors of a coup attempt in the spring of 2012 discovered this fact the hard way.

To achieve self-censorship, however, the users must first understand that they can and will be held accountable for the content they post. As a result, it would not be surprising to see implementation of real name registration accompanied by publicity campaigns and a number of high profile prosecutions for posting illegal content.

[...] This new rules were issued by the standing committee of the National People’s Congress, which has a higher position in the official government structure than both the municipality of Beijing and the General Administration of Press and Publication. As a result, the issuance of these rules suggests not only that China’s leadership at the highest levels support the rules, but that those same top leaders are paying attention to the issue of anonyms Weibo posts. With such high level focus, China’s internet users should expect a much greater effort to fully implementation real name registration this time.

Despite the official claims that the new rules will better protect online privacy, Adam Minter at Bloomberg sees Chinese netizens chafe at the real-name registration:

Other, more literary-minded microbloggers have taken to pointing out that many of China’s revolutionary heroes used pseudonyms. Thus, Xi’an Dragon, the online handle of a Sina Weibo microblogger in Xi’an, invokes the seminal 20th Century Chinese writer Lu Xun, a favorite of modern China’s founding father, Chairman Mao:

“If Lu Xun and Mao Zedong were still alive, I’d ask their opinion of real name registration. After all, Lu Xun had many pen names and Mao Zedong also published many articles under many names in many newspapers. Internet real-name registration will become the darkest political scandal in human history: the Real- Name Registration Scandal.”

However, by far the most common criticism of the real-name requirement is that China’s civil servants are asking for ever- greater degrees of transparency from China’s Internet users without requiring it of themselves. Indeed, in the last two years, Chinese governments at various levels have required “real name” registration for kitchen knivesrailway tickets and HIV testing, among other things. Meanwhile, a long-promised and very popular proposed civil service reform that would require personal financial disclosures keeps getting punted into the future. For the online opposition to China’s new Internet law, the two issues are directly connected, and it’s not difficult to find microblogs and blogs making the connection. A New Year’s Eve tweet from another pseudonymous microblogger — this time in Zhengzhou — is harshly representative:

“A population of 1.4 billion needs to file a real name registration to buy a kitchen knife. Airlines and railways transported 2,000,000,000 passengers who revealed their real names. But 10,000,000 working civil servants cannot disclose their personal property? It’s not impossible, but they just don’t want to do it. If it’s legitimate income why can’t they accept public supervision?”

See more on real-name registration via CDT.