China is launching its strongest official measure yet to quell electronic expressions of discontent, clamping down on its versions of Twitter that have increasingly fueled once-rare protests and threaten to undermine its leaders’ firm hold on power. In the name of defending Chinese cyberspace against “harmful information,” the Beijing city government announced new rules likely to chill a raucous national conversation on services like Sina Weibo, to which Chinese users are flooding to share brief text messages, photos and video. Officials will require users who post so-called microblogs to register their real names with the microblogging services—to be verified by government authorities—sweeping away the anonymity that has helped cloak dissidents online.
The new rules also ban the posting of state secrets and material that could hurt national security, as well as posts that spur ethnic resentment, discrimination or rallies “that disrupt social order,” the state-run Xinhua news agency said. The rules didn’t mention penalties. The move represents a potential turning point as the Internet has become an increasingly disruptive force for China’s leaders ahead of once-a-decade transition next year, when China’s top two leadership positions will change hands. It also comes as a rebellion by villagers in Wukan in the country’s south, over local politicians’ attempts to sell their farmland, has become the biggest of a recent string of uprisings exposing social and economic tensions plaguing the country. Villagers on Friday continued to seal off roads to prevent government security forces from entering. In July, a high-speed train crash touched off an Internet debate about the human cost of China’s warp-speed economic-development model. Microblog sites also became a platform for public outcry over school-bus safety and government spending after a recent spate of deadly school-bus crashes. Now, Internet censors are straining to prevent the unrest in the South from becoming a galvanizing subject of national controversy. Coverage of the Wukan unrest has been minimal in Chinese state media, and Internet censors have blocked or deleted most references to it.The initial anger in Wukan isn’t directed at the central government, but with the help of microblogs the tone and direction of anger could shift.
Chinese authorities appeared spooked by the role of social media in the revolutions that swept authoritarian governments from power in the Arab world this year. But they are loath to shut down microblogging outright, not least because it allows aggrieved citizens to let off steam, and in the absence of Western-style democracy and a free media it gives authorities insight into citizens’ concerns. Beijing city officials said Friday that microblogging sites that are based in the city must verify the real names of users before those users are allowed to post, though they can choose their own screen names. “If you want to post” information online, “you have to take responsibility,” said Wang Hui, spokeswoman for the Beijing municipal government, adding that the ability to use screen names still will allow users to have some privacy. Though the new rules are limited to Beijing for now, the expectation is that they will be extended elsewhere.