China's public security ministry is pressing ahead with moves to force more of the country's 668 million netizens to use their real names and a digital ID card online.
The move is part of a raft of tighter Internet controls enshrined in the draft Cybersecurity Law being debated in China's parliament, the China Youth Daily newspaper said in a recent report.
Officials at the ministry are already preparing to implement the measures, although the bill has yet to be passed into law by the National People's Congress (NPC), the paper quoted cybersecurity official Li Qingqing as saying.
The new regime will set out to clarify the responsibilities of Internet service providers, account holders and the government with regard to online behavior, Li told the paper.
The draft law aims to "ensure network security, [and] safeguard the sovereignty of cyberspace and national security," according to the NPC’s official website, and will “ensure Chinese Internet users aren’t allowed to "disturb the social order [and] harm the public interest.”
While officials say the new system will improve the security of users'
personal data and help fight cybercrime, online activists say it is yet another way for the ruling Chinese Communist Party to keep tabs on who is saying what online.
"The overall aim of the Chinese Communist Party is to further tighten control on dissidents, including democracy activists," an online activist identified by a nickname "Xiaofei Riyetan" told RFA on Thursday.
"This will add greater weight to their attempts to accuse these people of crimes, and enable them to lock them up in the name of the rule of law," he said.
He said recent surveys showing that netizens feel less safe online than they did previously have more to do with a sense that everything they do or say is being watched, than with cybercrime.
"The crackdown on dissents has got worse and worse since [President] Xi Jinping came to power," the activist said.
"The space for free expression is getting smaller and smaller, and ever more tightly managed; that's why we feel more and more unsafe," he said.
Great Firewall to expand
Rights groups fear that the new cybersecurity law could also lead to further tightening of the existing set of blocks, filters and human censorship known collectively as the Great Firewall.
In August, Beijing announced it would further tighten its grip on the country's Internet with the stationing of specialist police officers in major Internet companies.
The ministry of public security has warned that hacker attacks, "violent terrorist information," fraud and data theft, pornography and gambling are mushrooming online, posing a serious threat to social stability and national security.
Its solution: Police should "play a dominant role" in the management of online security.
Freedom of speech activist Wu Bin said the real-name registration requirements have been in place for some time, but now the authorities are beginning to fine-tune their control of online speech.
"It's all about stability maintenance and about controlling online speech," Wu told RFA.
"This will mean that if you write something critical of the government or something they don't like, they will immediately be able to use the real-name system to track down your data and arrest you or place you under surveillance," he said.
"All this talk of fighting cybercrime is just lies; they just want to stay in power," he added.
Wu said further fine-tuning would likely be needed to maintain control in future.
"They can never fine-tune it totally," he said.
Guangzhou-based online commentator Ye Du said the police are likely trying to expand their ability to track the entire Chinese population.
"Whenever you put something online, the government will be able to see what you have posted much more easily," Ye said.
"Also, they will be able to know exactly where you are, because the current government surveillance system shows the location of all netizens," he said.
‘Chill on freedom of expression’
Hunan-based rights activist Ou Biaofeng said the new system will put a further chill on freedom of expression online.
"A lot of people are going to be afraid to write anything online under this real-name system," Ou said.
"It is effectively a form of threat [to Internet users], to keep them too afraid to say anything, to silence them," he said.
Online commentators also seemed skeptical about the plan.
"It's just lame to try to make a link between the extension of the real-name registration system and cybercrime," social media user @ruanjianmingoing2015 wrote, adding that the government's insistence on real-name registrations may have made cybercrime more likely.
"Cybercriminals are only able to impersonate users with fake ID cards because of the real-name registration requirement for cell phones."
"The real-name registration system puts citizens' private data online."
Meanwhile, user @lagongshemayi quipped: "[Xi] has to keep as tight a lid as possible. What would happen if we saw what was really going on?"
Reported by Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.