Use a fake name, go to jail. That seems to be the message of a heavily publicized push by China’s central government to require users of microblogging sites, such as Weibo, to register under their real names.
“Currently, this type of registration is being tested in Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen. We will extend it to other areas once the pilot programmes prove successful," Wang Chen, minister of the State Council Information Office, is quoted as saying in the UK's Guardian newspaper.
He added: "Microblogging is a new medium that can spread information rapidly and have a big influence. It covers a wide population and can mobilise people."
China has a well documented history of unease with microblogging sites and other new media -- and some 300 million Chinese are said to be regular users -- but the demand for real names is a new threat that has experts pondering exactly how concerned China is with dissent that is becoming louder on the Chinese microblogs. (See: China Bans Internet News Sources and China Stifles Internet Media.)
“The [Communist Party] leadership is very nervous,” says Shanghai-based Tom Doctoroff, author of the coming book, What Chinese Want. Fuel for anxiety is that, in midyear, China’s president and premier are scheduled to step down, and, says Doctoroff, “There is a lot of jockeying for position.”
As the power shift looms, eyes in power seem to be turned toward monitoring conversations on the Internet -- perhaps as China’s leaders watch the painful stumbles of Russia’s oligarchs. (See: Russian Politics 2012: Vlad Impaled by the Net.)
A Beijing-based American -- on condition of anonymity -- told me: “This [microblogging] crackdown is already impacting me personally and of course lots of people -- as most coffeeshops and restaurants have had free WiFi service. It’s still free, but you now have to give your mobile phone number and get a password back on your phone to input on your laptop to use WiFi at Starbucks.”
He adds, “People are keeping fingers crossed this will blow over.”
And that may be exactly how this plays out, Doctoroff suggests. “The government knows the people need ways to let off steam and that the Internet is an avenue for that,” he says. He elaborates that the Chinese-language Web is awash with “free pornography sites and violent video games,” and the government, in effect, pointedly ignores these outlets.
Then there is the technology perimeter, the “Great Firewall of China.” Lance James, director of intelligence at security firm Vigilant, sees China “failing heavily” if it truly tries to enforce a real-name policy across its vast nation. “Technically it will be a big issue. Fake IDs are not hard to come by in China -- they are good at counterfeiting. And social network malware can steal legit accounts -- it grabs logins -- so you would not know who was posting.”
And then there is this glaring fact: The government is caught betwixt and between. Even if it could, it might not want to dramatically limit microblogging dissent.
Right now, vocal anti-government sentiments are largely limited to a tiny minority of disaffected youth, whose opinions do not matter that much. And yet the extraordinarily active microblogs give the government a clear window on the level of dissent -- and were they to truly censor postings, they would lose that. Says Doctoroff: “In the end, this [real-name requirement] may backfire for the government because they now listen to online grumbles before grievances turn into major protests. Now fewer people will dare to raise their voices, and the government will be denied a ‘polling device’ and exacerbate alienation from the people.”
That is why many experts increasingly believe that the microblogging crackdown will be analogous to China’s faltering crackdowns on indoor smoking -- there will be plenty of noise, right up to the regime change, and then suddenly the issue will simply cease to be discussed. Until then, says Doctoroff, “I can’t imagine the government will be aggressive in enforcing any of this.”
The smoking ban has resulted in Chinese people smoking wherever they please. And very probably, they will continue to microblog as they please, too.
Besides, adds Doctoroff, for the overwhelming majority of Chinese microbloggers, “People are blogging not to protest, but to show off. They want to show they are cool people.”
Why would Beijing crack down on that?
— Robert McGarvey has been online and writing about the Internet for nearly 25 years.