HONG KONG—The Chinese government has already spent at least U.S.$800 million on state-of-the-art monitoring technology to control its citizens online, but recent moves suggest Beijing may soon tighten its grip on cyberspace still further.
Residents of the southern boomtown of Shenzhen wishing to use instant messenging software to engage in group discussions are being required to have their real identities verified by IM company Tencent, it has emerged recently.
The move reflects growing official determination to control Chinese cyberspace, and is a worrying foretaste of things to come, observers told RFA's Mandarin service.
"What the real-name system does, is to use a person's real identity to register when expressing an opinion," independent current affairs commentator Zhou Bin said from neighboring Hong Kong.
"That means they will verify your ID card and your real name before you can use the service," Zhou told RFA's Mandarin service.
"This function was performed by the public security department or Internet service providers on behalf of the public security authorities in the past," he said.
The real-name concept is not something new, and has already been piloted in some provinces and higher education institutions since 2003, effectively dampening the vitality of campus-based bulletin boards (BBS) forums, Chinese activists say.
"The sole purpose of the real-name registration system is to impose severe controls over public opinion in cyberspace and to further a surveillance society in China," U.S.-based dissident-turned-blogger Xiao Qiang said in a recent commentary broadcast by RFA.
Xiao said national security and propaganda departments had also trained a network of on-line "commentators" to manipulate public opinion as expressed in Internet forums, BBSs and message groups.
"On one hand, the Chinese government forces netizens to expose their real identities to facilitate government supervision, while on the other, it pays to train Party publicity personnel to hide their identities to fabricate false public opinion," he said.
Chinese bloggers using their own domain name have already been required to re-register, giving the names and addresses of any site administrators, who are recorded as responsible for moderating site content. Many have already blogged about the bureaucratic and financial obstacles placed in the way of individual bloggers.
Zhou said the Web site registration requirement--now apparently being taken up by Tencent in Shenzhen--gave the government instant control over the relatively small number of its citizens who organized instant message groups, or QQs, or other on-line discussion media.
Self-censorship was the ultimate goal, he said.
"It means organizers have to scrutinize the speech themselves for fear of getting into trouble, because postings that are offensive to the authorities often appear on the QQ sites," he said.
Not all Chinese officials are of the same mind as the hard-line propaganda department on this issue, however. Liu Ze, an official at the Beijing Cultural Center who follows developments on Internet controls by the government, said he thought that compulsory real-name registration was going too far.
"I support or advocate certain appropriate restrictions. I advocate Internet real-name system but it should not be mandatory," Liu said.
Government attempts to censor the Web have drawn the strongest reaction from China's otherwise docile university students, many of whom were angered by the closure of high-profile BBS discussion boards like Beijing University's Yitahutu last year.
"There are many things to be exchanged, whether it is technology or other things," a university student in the northern coastal province of Shandong told RFA reporter Yan Ming.
"The Internet is an educational platform. Even though it does not affect us, we still feel uncomfortable [about real-name registration] because people have their privacy," the student said.
Major search engines, service providers and technology companies—including U.S.-based Yahoo!, Cisco and Microsoft—have already been criticized by advocates of free speech online for cooperating with Beijing to censor "bad" words like "democracy" and "Taiwan independence" and to block content which the government doesn't like from users in China.
Yahoo! China's recent U.S.$1 billion merger with Chinese-owned Alibaba will effectively sidestep any need for Yahoo!, as international partner and 40 percent stakeholder, directly to negotiate censorship issues with Beijing, devolving all such decisions to the local management team.
But industry analysts told RFA that the decision was largely prompted by the realization that Yahoo! China had been losing ground to homegrown search engines and e-commerce companies like Alibaba. Both sides stood to gain from the new relationship in terms of furthering their core businesses, they said.
China has invested at least U.S.$800 million in a sophisticated Internet monitoring system which is being jointly developed by the Ministry of Public Security and the Ministry of National Security, experts have told RFA.
China had 103 million Internet users as of June 30, representing a nine million increase over six months and an 18.4 percent growth rate compared with the same period last year, the China Internet Network Information Center reported.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Yan Ming, Wen Jian and Xiao Qiang. RFA Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Produced for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie.