Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom

You Name It, We Lost It

Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore

BEIJING, Mar 15 2012 (IPS) - Millions of Chinese micro-blog users will be forced to hand over their details this week in a real-name registration drive. The new state regulations – piloted in five Chinese cities – have created uproar amidst fears the move will bring heightened censorship and a crackdown on users.

China has witnessed an explosion in social media over recent years, with the number of micro-blog users quadrupling in 2011. Around 300 million are registered on micro-blogs across the country, and many use the Twitter-like posts to verbalise anger over subjects ranging from corruption to pollution. Until now they have been allowed to post their views anonymously.

Sina Weibo, which was launched in 2009, has become the favourite mirco-blogging site in China with over 250 million registered users. Despite censors blocking sensitive words on the site – such as Tibet or Tiananmen – it has become a haven for whistleblowers.

But in December the Beijing city government announced that all micro-blog operators based in the capital, including Sina Weibo, must force users to provide a verifiable real name and mobile telephone number within a three-month deadline, which expires Mar. 16. Those who fail to comply will no longer be able to post comments on the site.

The pilot scheme will be extended to other areas if successful, Wang Chen, minister of the State Council Information Office, stated in January.

The regulations are an attempt to prevent “the spread of rumours”, Wang said. Micro-blogging, he added, “can spread information rapidly and have a big influence. It covers a wide population and can mobilise people.”

“This is a violation of privacy and security,” Wang Junxiu, CEO of Blogchina, tells IPS. “It will have negative effects, for sure. The government said it will maintain social stability – they must have meant maintain their stability.”

Wang adds that the rules are bound to turn away users. “Web portals are not very keen on this policy, because strict applications will decrease their users.”

With media strictly controlled by the state, the public have few outlets to express opinions. Past hot topics on Weibo have ranged from the abuse of local power to land grabs.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) warns that the rules will curb public empowerment and prevent individuals from highlighting contentious issues for fear of retaliation.

“In terms of real name registration, there are two angles. For those individuals who are known to the authorities for perceived dissent or challenges to the status quo – the most famous being people such as Ai Wei Wei – this real name registration doesn’t make a difference because they are already on the grid,” says Phelim Kine, a senior Asia researcher at the New York-based HRW.

“The real concern is that real name registration will have a chilling effect by discouraging individuals from making disclosures based on a not unfounded fear that there might be official reprisals from such actions.”

Liu Wenbing, a 32-year-old IT worker, is just one of the many who opposes real name registration. Liu will no longer use Sina Weibo and will instead turn to Twitter. The site is blocked on the mainland, but many Twitter-users get around the Great Firewall via use of a proxy.

“Weibo is a platform to publish and spread information – real identity is not necessary. The government just wants to control citizens and interfere with personal freedom. It is an expression of un-confidence,” Liu tells IPS.

“The government said it is for maintaining social stability. It sounds hypocritical and typical with ‘Chinese characteristics’. It is really designed to undermine the platform. Citizens should be able to say whatever they want to say. People like freedom. Registration is a way of depriving it.”

Online reaction has been just as vehement. “Weibo is a tool to spread information,” said a user named Leo- Majia on Sina Weibo. “It brings surprises to our lives, such as anti-corruption, the Guo Meimei scandal (in which a 20-year-old girl who claimed to work for the Red Cross of China flaunted her designer lifestyle in pictures on Weibo, sparking a national crisis of confidence in Chinese charities), crackdowns on abducting and selling children etc. If it goes real name, I am afraid Weibo will lose its charm and value too.”

Despite such concerns, Sina Weibo has announced that it expects 60 percent of its account holders to meet the deadline. Forty percent have failed to complete the registration, according to Sina’s chief executive Charles Chao.

A spokesperson at the Sina headquarters tells IPS: “It is a government move. Sina isn’t in the right place to say much.”

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