by Peter Foster, The Telegraph, May 5, 2010
The move comes less than a week after China announced a hardening of its State Secrets law, requiring internet and mobile phone operators to inform on their customers and co-operate with police demands for information on users.
Plans to make all online users register have been debated for years in China, but senior officials have confirmed that the government is now actively investigating how to implement a system of real-name registration.
“We are also exploring an identity authentication system for users of online bulletin board systems,” said Wang Chen, the vice-head of the ruling Communist Party’s propaganda department in a speech to China’s top legislature reported by the state-run China Daily newspaper.
Chinese online users are already banned from making anonymous comments on online news portals, but they are allowed to use “net-names” which obscure their real identity.
In a country where print and television media is tightly controlled, the discussion platforms are one of the few vibrant places of debate where citizens air grievances and are frequently critical of the government.
The announcement drew a predictably scathing response from online users angry at yet further plans to curtail freedom of speech.
“I am afraid there will be more harassment or reprisals if real-name registration system is enforced,” wrote one user of the popular QQ.com bulletin board.
“Stopping the free flow of people’s thoughts will cause more damage than stopping the water flowing in the rivers,” added another on the Tianya website.
“China will soon enter an era when people only dare to contact each other with eyes rather than by talking,” wrote a third, drawing a literary allusion to the ancient Chinese tyrant-emperor who so controlled his subjects speech that they dared only make eye contact in the street.
Their comments may not be in vain. Last year China’s internet users reacted furiously to Chinese government attempts to introduce the Green Dam Youth Escort internet monitoring software, eventually forcing the government to shelve its plans.
And this year Google, the internet search giant, announced it was closing its Chinese-based search engine because of its concerns over expanding Chinese government censorship of the web.
Civil rights groups say that China is currently moving to tighten all forms of social control, including the media and the internet, also targeting NGOs, social activists and lawyers who are considered a threat to the “social stability” of the country.
Figures published this year show that China’s internal security budget reaching a record level of £50 – almost as much as the £51bn it spends on its armed forces – in a bid to keep a lid on the estimated 90,000 protests which take place in the country each year.
The country also maintains an informal network of several million informants to alert the authorities to unrest. In February a police chief from a remote county in Inner Mongolia boasted he had more than 12,000 spies in a population of just 400,000.
However the ramping up of internet control in China has drawn criticism from leading Chinese academics who argue that the petty constraints will only to deepen resentments caused by rising wealth disparities, a politicised justice system and endemic corruption.
Yu Jianrong, Professor and Director of the Rural Development Institute’s Social Issues Research Center at the Chinese Academy for Social Sciences, is among the most high-profile, arguing that if “citizen participation” is strangled at birth it could make China more, not less, unstable.
In an article for Study Times, a weekly publication published by the Communist Party’s Central School, Professor Yu called for citizen participation to “become the buffer for social stability” for the “long-term development and fundamental interests of China.”