China has announced it will expand controls on 330 million users of the country's hugely popular Twitter-like services, in a move critics say will curb microblogs as a vital source of news and unofficial opinion.
Real-name registration is necessary to ensure the "rapid and healthy growth of the Internet," Wang Chen, head of China's cabinet-level Internet management office, told reporters.
Beijing rolled out a pilot real-name registration scheme in Beijing last month, later extending it to other major cities, including Shanghai and Guangzhou.
Wang said the scheme will be rolled out nationwide, with new users and then eventually all microblog users required to present their real names and contact details to get, or keep, their accounts.
The move has sparked dismay among bloggers, journalists, and rights activists, many of whom rely on information gleaned from microblogs for breaking news that isn't covered by the government-controlled Chinese media.
They fear that real-name registration will create a climate of fear in China's exuberant and active microblogging community, as anyone tweeting—and even re-tweeting—news the government deems inaccurate or negative could face official retaliation.
Wang said the policy only requires that new microblog users register "backstage" with their real name, meaning that the service provider will have access to their details, while other microbloggers may only see a nickname.
"The microblog has changed the way we exchange information, but irrational, negative, and harmful opinions can also be expressed," the official China Daily newspaper quoted Wang as saying.
"Pornography, fraud, and rumors" can be found online and this can harm society, he said.
Set up in May 2011, Wang's State Internet Information Office is the highest government authority that supervises online content management and news reporting, with a mandate to investigate and punish websites that violate the country's rules on undesirable content.
Staffed and headed by existing State Council information office staff and directors, the department is directly involved in the direction of online publications and of online gaming, video, and audio businesses.
China has imposed a complex system of blocks, keyword filters, and human censorship known collectively as the Great Firewall, or GFW, on its 513 million netizens.
Wu Fan, editor in chief of the overseas Chinese-language magazine Chinese Affairs, said the announcement showed just how worried the government is about the recent explosion of microblogging activity among netizens, who currently send around 150 millions tweets daily.
"Actually, the microblogging phenomenon was created by the Chinese Communist Party itself, which has made a rod for its own back," Wu said. "They created Sina Weibo because they wouldn't allow ... Twitter and Facebook to operate freely in China."
He said that China's microblogging platforms, unlike Twitter and Facebook, are still regarded as experiments in Beijing.
"This is still a pilot project and could be shut down at any time," Wu said. "They had planned to use it as a tool to fool the people ... but instead the people used it as a tool to transmit news."
"This news is much faster and more comprehensive than the news that is available on ordinary Chinese media like CCTV. It comes from the grassroots, and you can read about pretty much anything," he said.
"That's why the Chinese Communist Party is very afraid."
Reported by Xi Wang for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.