Chinese Censors Lift the Veil on Bloggers

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”
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The other day China presented a new deal to its 538 million Internet users: Disclose your identities to your service providers, and we’ll protect your privacy from everyone else.

Acceptance is not voluntary -- rather, it’s law. But that isn’t stopping China’s editorialists, bloggers and microbloggers from openly contemplating a serious question: Can China’s raucous, muckraking Internet culture survive if the anonymous microbloggers who enervate it are forced to disclose their identities to the often state-owned entities that allow them to surf in the first place?

For the Communist Party-run news outlets that make it their business to propagandize in favor of government policy, the answer is an enthusiastic yes. In the weeks and days before the law was revealed to the public, People’s Daily, the self-declared mouthpiece of the Party ran several editorials that -- in retrospect -- were designed to lay the groundwork for restrictive Internet legislation. Of these, perhaps the most notable was published on Christmas Eve, under a pseudonymous byline. It argued:

“Without wings, the bird of freedom cannot fly high. Without rule of law, a free internet cannot go far … Cleaning up the online world demands the self-discipline of web users, but even more it demands the interventionist discipline of rule of law. Only by putting the “binds” of rule of law on the internet … can we possibly restrain irresponsible rumors, restrain the leakage of personal information, and make the internet clean again.”

The binds that China’s lawgivers have in mind are several, including provisions restricting and penalizing spammers, fraudsters and online marketers. But the provision at the heart of the new law targets the average Internet user most directly. Under it, internet service providers will be required to verify the identities of new subscribers (subscribers will be allowed to maintain online pseudonyms) before service can be activated.

For most users, this won’t be much of an inconvenience or change (540 million people are already online in China). But the cumulative effect of this provision, and an earlier March 2012 rule that China’s rollicking microblogs verify the actual identities of their millions of oft-anonymous users have left many of China’s netizens nervous. (Even though that earlier rule has been barely and badly enforced.)

Anonymity, after all, is one of the reasons that China’s microblogs have become the nation’s de facto town square, providing an unprecedented platform for discussions about politics and public affairs. At the same time, they’ve provided cover for a wave of amateur muckrakers to uncover, tweet about and re-tweet alleged corruption and other misdeeds among Chinese officialdom (often with the approval of Party-run media and some government officials). Lift the veil of anonymity so that Internet service providers and their regulators know who is doing the anti-corruption tweeting, and the anti-corruption tweeters will go silent, the argument goes.

“After the internet real-name registration comes into effect, online anti-corruption efforts will be a thing of the past,” tweeted Duan Wanjin, a lawyer in Xian, via the Sina Weibo microblog on Saturday night. “In the future, if citizens want to report wrongdoers online, they’ll have to handle themselves like suicide bombers, dying but succeeding for a righteous cause.”

Neither People’s Daily or other Party-run newspapers deny a state interest in the “real name” data collected by the service providers. Rather they shift the terms of the argument and offer the Orwellian argument that by disclosing their identities, China’s netizens are actually enhancing their privacy. For example, the nationalist, English-language edition of the Global Times ran a Saturday editorial in support of the law, noting:

“It regulates for the first time that the State should protect online information that bears someone’s personal identity and relates to privacy, along with punitive measures for violations.”

In other words, the government can’t be expected to protect your privacy if it doesn’t know who you are. So tell us who you are.

For now, online Chinese reaction to the requirement has been decidedly muted, especially compared with the panicked reaction that real-name registration for microblogs produced in March 2012. It’s possible that many netizens, having seen the lax enforcement of the microblogging requirements, are assuming that this latest step will wither as well. Or, just as likely, the fact that the new law only applies to new accounts means that most current Chinese microbloggers won’t be affected by it, anyway. And then there’s the holidays: China may not be a Christian nation, but it celebrates Christmas and New Year’s Eve with a gusto that renders privacy concerns a low priority right now.

Whatever the explanation, the discussion hasn’t topped any trending topic lists. Still, the issue isn’t censored -- searching for “real name registration” brings up thousands of results on Chinese microblogs, the vast majority of which directly oppose the new law. Humor, especially in service of exposing government hypocrisy, is typically the first-line defense, with many microbloggers pointing out that People’s Daily, a paper that regularly runs pseudonymous editorials, is the chief propagandist in promoting the end to their anonymity.

“Real-name registration has been put into practice on the Internet,” tweeted a microblogger in Shenyang, using the Sina Weibo service. “So why isn’t it being used in People’s Daily?”

Other, more literary-minded microbloggers have taken to pointing out that many of China’s revolutionary heroes used pseudonyms. Thus, Xi’an Dragon, the online handle of a Sina Weibo microblogger in Xi’an, invokes the seminal 20th Century Chinese writer Lu Xun, a favorite of modern China’s founding father, Chairman Mao:

“If Lu Xun and Mao Zedong were still alive, I’d ask their opinion of real name registration. After all, Lu Xun had many pen names and Mao Zedong also published many articles under many names in many newspapers. Internet real-name registration will become the darkest political scandal in human history: the Real-Name Registration Scandal.”

However, by far the most common criticism of the real-name requirement is that China’s civil servants are asking for ever-greater degrees of transparency from China’s Internet users without requiring it of themselves. Indeed, in the last two years, Chinese governments at various levels have required “real name” registration for kitchen knives, railway tickets and HIV testing, among other things. Meanwhile, a long-promised and very popular proposed civil service reform that would require personal financial disclosures keeps getting punted into the future. For the online opposition to China’s new Internet law, the two issues are directly connected, and it’s not difficult to find microblogs and blogs making the connection. A New Year’s Eve tweet from another pseudonymous microblogger -- this time in Zhengzhou -- is harshly representative:

“A population of 1.4 billion needs to file a real name registration to buy a kitchen knife. Airlines and railways transported 2,000,000,000 passengers who revealed their real names. But 10,000,000 working civil servants cannot disclose their personal property? It’s not impossible, but they just don’t want to do it. If it’s legitimate income why can’t they accept public supervision?”

It’s a touchy issue: Corruption is a near-daily feature of Chinese news reporting these days, and it’s the rare official who doesn’t have an impressive portfolio of real estate and other property (the ostensibly non-corrupt don’t do so badly, either). Presumably, forcing officials to reveal their assets would go a long way to solving some of China’s corruption problem. Still, one of the advantages of being a member of China’s Communist Party is that there really are no physical venues at which you might have to answer such questions. If microblogs stop being a virtual venue, then those questions simply won’t be asked as much.

More likely than not, effective enforcement of an Internet real name registration law will ensure that current state of affairs persists a little while longer, if only due to the chilling effect. But unless somebody shuts down China’s Internet entirely, there’s not much that can be done to stop the Chinese people from wondering why so much more is being asked of them than of their public servants.

(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is writing a book on the global recycling industry. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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