New microblog rules requiring account holders to use their real names are being rolled out in two other major Chinese cities following the first clampdown on Twitter-like services in Beijing earlier this month.
Seven major websites in Guangzhou and Shenzhen, in the southern province of Guangdong, began on Thursday to ask new users to register with real names, the provincial publicity department said in a statement.
The new rules are made "in accordance with Chinese laws and regulations" in a bid to "foster healthy Internet culture" and "strengthen management and guide social networking services (SNS) and instant-messaging tools," the official Xinhua news agency quoted the government as saying.
Guangdong, beset this week by massive popular unrest, has followed swiftly on the heels of Beijing's initial ruling made last Friday.
"Experts claim the new rules will help purify the Internet environment, as fake and fraudulent information is often seen spreading through microblogs," Xinhua reported.
The new regulations require all users to register with their real names in order to use microblog services, and those who fail to register within three months will be unable to post at all.
Jointly issued by the Beijing government, police and Internet management office, the rules will likely apply to all 250 million users of the popular Twitter-like service Weibo.com, regardless of location, because its operator, Chinese Web portal Sina Corp., is headquartered in Beijing.
Shenzhen-based Tencent Holdings, which operates the popular QQ chatroom and messaging service, is taking part in Guangdong's rollout of the scheme.
"We are already watching this issue carefully, but we haven't yet understood the actual details," said an employee of Sina's microblog service helpline when the rules were first issued in Beijing. "We haven't yet received details of how to deliver a real-name microblogging service from the departments concerned with microblogging."
Sina was quoted in official Chinese media earlier this week as saying that the company would fully comply with the new rules, while rival service provider Sohu said it supported a real-name registration system as being conducive to the "healthy development" of the Internet.
The changes in microblogging rules have been in the pipeline since October, when a top-level ruling Chinese Communist Party meeting made a statement about the "healthy" development of Internet culture.
Many netizens expressed concern that the new rules will silence anyone exposing public scandals involving the rich and powerful, or breaking news online like the recent mass protests in the Guangdong village of Wukan, which the authorities are keen to suppress in the name of harmony and stability.
"This will silence the voice of the people," wrote user @lamatingfeng via the Sina Weibo microblogging service. "There will only ever be a single voice speaking now."
User @qiaosiye wrote: "Now the last little bit of freedom of expression we had left is under threat."
Xiamen-based blogger and online activist Peter Guo said that even if they were interpreted generously by microblog service providers and officials, the rules, which come into effect in three months' time, would interfere with freedom of speech at every level.
"Most people are more daring about what they say if they can stay anonymous," Guo said. "They have created an atmosphere of fear, so those who aren't so willing to take risks...will just censor themselves the whole time now."
"That will be the biggest effect of real-name registration: self-censorship," Guo said.
Website manager Cheng Kangming agreed. "The main purpose is to limit freedom of expression," he said.
"Corruption cases tend to leak out first via microblogs, and people are going to be unwilling to do this under a real-name registration system, for fear of reprisals," Cheng said.
However, some Internet users said it was still unclear how strictly the rules would be implemented, pointing to similar rulings made for users of pay-as-you-go cell phone services in September 2010.
"Since those rules came into effect, they haven't had much of an impact," said one netizen, surnamed Zhang. "One year on, there hasn't been much change, and I think it will be similar with the microblog services; they just won't be able to achieve it."
He said many businesses would be unwilling to implement the rules fully and risk damaging their business, and that this reluctance would render the regulations fairly useless.
Guangzhou-based netizen known by her online nickname Mayi said she was concerned at the possibility of identity theft, once her details were handed over to her microblog service provider.
"[They] could use them for illegal purposes...such as purchasing train tickets," she said.
China currently has about 300 million microblog accounts, according to official figures, but it is unclear how many of those are linked to individual users.
The move stems from an Oct. 18 communique issued by the Communist Party Central Committee which prioritized Internet security.
The new rules target people posting "malicious speech" using different accounts, according to a commentary on Thursday in the Party mouthpiece, the People's Daily.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service, and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.