A new policy in China that requires microblog, or weibo, users to register with their real names went into effect last week. Despite a large online outcry before the March 16 deadline, the new measure appears to be having a limited effect.
Many users on China’s popular Twitter-like microblogging sites such as Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo say they can still post messages online without registering with their real names and government identification numbers.
Although users say applications for new members are being denied if they fail to provide the required information, some bloggers are finding a way around the requirement. One opponent to the policy, a blogger who goes by the name of Jdxing, said there is already a computer program that generates fake identification numbers to help microbloggers remain anonymous.
China says the real name policy is intended to limit the spread of rumors online and to protecting users.
Communications expert Mike Yao, with the City University of Hong Kong, said, “There are a lot of unanswered questions as to why or how this policy will be implemented and why it was implemented to begin with. My sense is that it is also politically motivated to curb expressions related to political issues as well.”
Microblogs have become wildly popular in China in recent years, and state media reports that there are more than 300 million registered users.
These sites are a major source of commentary in China on a wide range of topics. Online postings played a key role in breaking news and serving as an outlet for disgust with the government, after a high-speed train wreck last year killed 40 people.
Much like Twitter and others outside China, these sites are a place for Internet users to express their views about local issues and discuss matters such as life, love and the weather.
Christopher Walker with the U.S.-based human rights monitoring group Freedom House, said “Anonymity has allowed open expression in large measure, at least far-less restrictive than other media in the country. And the requirement now being imposed of real name identity, removes that freedom. It’s having a larger impact in suppressing users who are worried. But most importantly, it’s going to have an impact on those who found the microblogging option to be particularly useful and valuable for communicating on more relevant and politically consequential issues that aren't so often able to comment in such a way on other media.”
On the social networking site Google Plus, Chinese student Michael Lee told VOA that although he still can post messages on Sina Weibo, he is angry and sad about the new policy. He says he fears the real name requirement will limit the type of discussions that made the online service appealing and allowed people to share their true thoughts.
Although it was the Beijing government that began the push to tighten controls on the media, service providers have been working with authorities to implement the new policy.
Early last month, China’s four key weibo companies - Sina, Sohu, NetEase and Tencent - not the government, announced the March 16 deadline for real name identity.
Mike Yao said that given the nature of relationships between the government and big companies in China, particularly companies involved in information and media, such a move is not a surprise. “The government of China is highly motivated to control the speech and communications online, on the Internet. So I don’t think that is an option. And maybe there will be some smaller companies who initially can get away with it [i.e., not adopt the policy]. But very quickly, if they have enough users, they will be forced to implement such policies.”
Although it is unclear how strictly the policy will be enforced, Walker said it will have an impact. “One of the lessons we’ve learned in recent years with the censorship strategy used by the Chinese authorities is that they don’t seek to block everything. They seek to manage and interfere with, and where necessary block, what they deem to be meaningful," he said.
That is one reason why Michael Lee, a Sina Weibo user, says he has decided to switch to an overseas social media service. He says that not only do microblogs in China delete postings, but also the government has people who routinely pose as regular users online and criticize anyone who opposes the government. Lee says, from his point of view, freedom of expression is more important.