The ruling Chinese Communist Party is to force authors publishing their work online to register with their real names, as the authorities keep up the pressure on freedom of expression, writers said.
According to new regulations from the government's Bureau of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, which administers tight control over media and publications, any authors posting literary works online must be in possession of a "certificate," requiring real-name registration.
The new rules also call for further "professional and moral training" for authors of online literary works.
The use of a pen-name is a time-honored tradition in Chinese literature and journalism, and many writers use pseudonyms to mask their identities if they wish to write something which might be construed as critical of the regime.
But pervasive state surveillance of individuals means that the authorities often know the identities of such authors.
‘Yet another attack’
Zhang Yu, secretary for the writers' group Independent Chinese PEN, said the move represents yet another attack on freedom of expression in China.
"This shows that they want to take their interference with writers' freedom of expression to the next level," Zhang told RFA. "This will make it much easier for them to maintain surveillance of authors, using various types of software and other methods."
"In actual fact, the authorities are able to find out who an author is using various types of technology, whether they use their real names or a pseudonym," he said.
"The whole point of this [real-name] system is to create a sense of threat, so that authors will censor themselves," he said.
The bureau's "Opinion on Directing the Healthy Development of Online Literature" calls on website publishers to uphold "core socialist values" and create a number of online literary brands making "popular, original...exquisite works of art that are the well-made result of deep thought."
It places the responsibility for setting up the online "certificate" system on the shoulders of editors and publishers of online literature.
The next step
Independent Guangdong-based writer Ye Du agreed that the new rules represent the next step in government control of freedom of expression.
"The government has been pushing real-name registration for some time now, and now they want to extend it to online authors," Ye said.
"Under a real-name registration system, many more people will have qualms about what they publish online, whether it be novels or social commentary," he said.
U.S.-based China scholar and former online editor Li Hongkuan said the rules will also make it harder for online publications that operate on a shoestring.
"This won't just affect literary works; it will also raise costs for anyone publishing anything online," Li said. "For example, if I write a post, then pass it to the editor for approval and fact-checking, who is going to pay for that?"
"A lot of Internet companies aren't going to want to pay out these sorts of expenses; also, the editors aren't necessarily going to be better educated than the authors," he said.
Li said online publication was an important way for authors to get exposure if they had been initially rejected by editors in the traditional publishing industry.
"With free online publication, authors could post their work straight away and let their readers decide for themselves," he said.
"This isn't going to help online publications; it will suppress them. It's definitely a step backwards," Li said.
Last month, authorities in the southwestern province of Sichuan began the prosecution of an octogenarian writer on public order charges and for "running an illegal business" after he wrote a highly critical article slamming the former propaganda minister.
Huang Zerong, 81, widely known by his pen name Tie Liu, was detained by police at his Beijing home in September on suspicion of "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble."
He was later also charged with "running an illegal business" and transferred to police detention in Sichuan's provincial capital Chengdu.
Rights activists say Tie's arrest could be linked to an article he wrote slamming tight controls on press freedom imposed by the Communist Party's former propaganda czar Liu Yunshan, who retired from the post in 2012 after 10 years in office.
According to the article, "Liu Yunshan is a person of the lowest order ... and the driving force behind the corrupt elite in charge of China's media," wrote Tie, who served a total of 23 years in prison during the "anti-rightist" political campaigns during the Mao era.
And in May, a court in the southern city of Shenzhen handed a 10-year jail term to a Hong Kong publisher who edited a book highly critical of President Xi Jinping.
Yiu Mantin, 79, was handed the sentence by the Shenzhen Intermediate People's Court, which found him guilty of "smuggling ordinary goods."
Reported by Lin Ping for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Pan Jiaqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.