China is preparing to roll out tighter Internet controls, extending a real-name registration system in place since March that has been confined to Beijing-based bloggers, according to a new set of official guidelines likely to become law.
In an amendment to existing Internet services management regulations, China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) will make real-name registration a legal requirement for participation in forums, blogs, microblogs, and any other interactive online services.
Veteran blogger Wen Yunchao, known online by his nickname Beifeng, said the authorities' aim in changing the law governing Internet services was to boost their own capacity to control online content.
"This is clearly aimed at strengthening control over the whole [Chinese] Internet," Wen said.
He said he fully expects the amendments to pass into law. "The likelihood that this will pass is 100 percent, I have no doubt about this," Wen said.
He said that the amendment would result in less breathing room for China's netizens, whose online activities are already closely monitored, and whose access to content is controlled by a complex system of blocks, filters, and human censorship known collectively as the Great Firewall.
"The online environment will be weakened, there's no doubt about it," Wen said. "The real-name registration system will increase fear among netizens."
Guang Yuan, editor-in-chief of the online news magazine Dongcha.com, said his site had been ordered to take down all of its archived content and was no longer being allowed to run news stories.
He said the consultation period for the amended legislation was a mere formality. "This will go ahead regardless," Guang said. "[It's] going to mean that no one will be able to speak freely online; their freedom of speech will be strictly controlled."
"If you don't do as they say, they will close down your blog or your website."
But he said netizens would probably come up with new ways to get around the rules. "They will achieve their aim temporarily, but people can get over the Great Firewall ... and express their opinions there and read real news, and the authorities can't do anything about that."
A netizen identified only by his online nickname, Fearless, said the real-name system would only work for IP addresses inside China.
"There will still be a lot of ways to exchange information, through a number of different channels," he said.
"The only practical problem is to do with routing, so that if you visit certain sites from within China, the whole thing will be very slow."
Last month, China's hugely popular Sina Weibo microblogging platform stepped up controls on what its users can post online, warning that anyone posting too much "inappropriate" content could be banned from the Twitter-like service.
Sina Weibo users who post five items of "sensitive" news could be barred from posting for 48 hours, while anyone judged to have posted "harmful information" could have their accounts revoked "in serious cases," the company has told its users.
Chinese computer experts say the government has continually sought ways to limit freedom of expression on the Internet since people started using it, and that controls on the nation's 250 million microbloggers are only the latest step in that process.
Beijing-based microbloggers have been prevented since March from registering an account on one of the country's hugely popular Twitter-like services in anything but their real name, verified by their national ID card.
The move has been slammed by netizens and rights groups alike as a huge blow to freedom of expression in China, where 513 million netizens rely on forums, social media, and bulletin boards to find news and views that have been censored out of the tightly controlled state media.
However, authorities have detained a number of netizens and online editors over retweeted material that was deemed controversial under new guidelines aimed at preventing the spread of online "rumors."
Earlier this year, authorities in Guangdong province detained Web forum editor Shang Laicheng after he reposted an Internet forum message alleging that local prosecution officials had used the services of prostitutes.
In March, the overseas China Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) group called government controls on microblogs "the most alarming development" on the Chinese Internet of the past year.
Reported by Bi Zimo and Wei Ling for RFA's Cantonese service, and by Wen Jian for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.