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Beijing Will Make Microblog Users Reveal Their Identities

The Sina Corp. Weibo micro blogging website is displayed on a computer in Beijing. Photographer: Nelson Ching/Bloomberg
The Sina Corp. Weibo micro blogging website is displayed on a computer in Beijing. Photographer: Nelson Ching/Bloomberg

Beijing will force microblog users to verify their identities, tightening control of the world’s largest Internet market as a siege at a village in southern China underscores the threat of social unrest.

The rules were announced by the official Xinhua News Agency yesterday as Sina Weibo, the Twitter-like service run by U.S.- listed Sina Corp., blocked references to Wukan, where armed police are engaged in a standoff with villagers.

Chinese officials have pressured microblog services to strengthen supervision of users after a fatal rail crash in July sparked an outburst of criticism of the government. The sites should serve the Communist Party and stop the spread of “false and harmful information,” the nation’s top Internet regulator said in October.

“The focus right now is Weibo, because it is putting the most pressure on the government,” said Bill Bishop, a Beijing-based independent media consultant. “The ongoing campaign to rein in the Internet is closer to the beginning than the end, and they are going to continue this drumbeat.”

Microblogs have at least 300 million registered users in China. Sina Weibo accounted for 66 percent of the market in August, according to a Sept. 15 report by BOCOM International. Tencent Holdings Ltd. is the second-biggest operator with a 25 percent share, it said.

Sina, based in Shanghai, rose 4.26 percent to close at $55 after plunging to a 15-month low in New York trading yesterday. Tencent, China’s biggest online games company, rose 1.7 percent to HK$152.70 in Hong Kong yesterday.

‘Will Slow’

“The growth of microblog services will slow” as a result of the new rules, Connie Gu, a Beijing-based analyst at BOCOM, said by telephone yesterday.

Under the new rules, Beijing’s municipal government will ban users from setting up fake microblog accounts and sending tweets containing state secrets and information that harm national security, Xinhua reported yesterday. Two telephone calls to the Internet information office at the Beijing city government weren’t answered yesterday.

China will punish microblogs that spread lies or rumors as it seeks a “healthy, orderly microblogging environment,” Xinhua reported in October, citing Wang Chen, director general of the State Internet Information Office. Microblogs should promote science, culture and social morality and shouldn’t carry “rumors” or “illegal information,” it said then.

‘Based on Rules’

In the southern province of Guangdong yesterday, police armed with shotguns restricted movements in and out of the village of Wukan, where protests bedan this week after the death in police custody of a local butcher.

A search yesterday for the keyword “Wukan” in Chinese on Sina Weibo returned a message saying “based on rules and regulations, results on ‘Wukan’ cannot be displayed.”

Liu Qi, a Beijing-based spokesman at Sina, declined to comment on the new rules when reached on his mobile-phone yesterday.

In May, China set up the State Internet Information Office to supervise online news and content. The country had 485 million Internet users at the end of June, more than the combined populations of the U.S. and Japan.

China’s system of Internet surveillance, also known as the “Great Firewall,” requires domestic operators including Tencent, Sina and Baidu Inc. to self-censor content deemed unacceptable to the government, and blocks overseas services such as Google Inc.’s YouTube, Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc.

Criticism of the government spread across Weibo after two high-speed trains collided in the eastern city of Wenzhou in July, killing 40 people. Users questioned the government’s handling of the crash and spread commentary and photos of the accident at odds with the official version of events.

Arab Spring

In February, Chinese Internet users were unable to search for content about Egypt on microblog services, as anti-government protests escalated in the Middle Eastern nation.

Google said in March China was disrupting its Gmail e-mail service and disguising the blockage as technical issues on the part of the U.S. company. Jiang Yu, a spokeswoman for China’s Foreign Ministry, said at the time the claim was “unacceptable.”

“This does illustrate the paranoia of the authorities in light of Arab spring,” said Duncan Clark, chairman of Beijing-based telecommunications consultant BDA China. “But attempting to control Weibo users will be like grabbing fish in the sea -- I suppose they can spear one or two and make an example but then the fish will all just swim away to another sea.”

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