Chinese authorities in the troubled northwestern region of Xinjiang have launched a new crackdown on millions of cell phone users amid tight security in the wake of last week's violence in the south of the region.
New regulations from the Xinjiang regional government's communications bureau will require anyone buying a SIM card for use with a cell phone to provide proof of identity and register the card to their own name, sources in the regional capital Urumqi said.
In accordance with the special regulations governing Xinjiang, which is home to 9 million minority Uyghurs and is the scene of recurring ethnic violence, the bureau has been meeting with sales representatives for mobile network operators to train them in implementing the "real-name" registration system for SIM cards, according to an Urumqi-based sales representative surnamed Zhang.
"As of May 1, the sellers will be required under the real-name system to ensure that the customer produces their own identity documents," Zhang said.
"They must then transmit a photo of the original ID document to the mobile service provider," he said.
"The traveling sales reps have been called to a meeting every day [since Saturday] to learn about the real-name system," Zhang said.
"My first reaction was not to believe it, because it affects such a large number of customers," he said.
Zhang said local service providers had already begun cutting off service to existing customers to force them to register before continuing to use the service.
"There are a lot of cards already in customers' possession out there," he said. "It's going to have a huge impact on society if you suddenly cut off people's service while they're already using it, and make them reregister," he said.
The move comes just days after 21 people were killed in clashes in Siriqbuya (in Chinese, Selibuya) township in Kashgar prefecture, and after clashes in Hotan's Yengi Awat (Yingawa) village left two people dead.
Police have arrested 19 suspects in connection with the clashes, while propaganda officials and state media have reported that the "terrorists" were caught making explosives and meeting secretly to study the Koran, the interpretation of which is strictly controlled by China's ruling Communist Party.
Chinese authorities blamed the violence on Uyghur "terrorists," but rights groups and experts familiar with the region say Beijing exaggerates a terrorism threat to take the heat off domestic policies that cause unrest or to justify the authorities' use of force against the Uyghur minority.
The Kashgar violence was the worst single episode since deadly clashes between Han Chinese and Uyghurs rocked the Xinjiang capital Urumqi in July 2009, prompting a region-wide blackout of the Internet and cell phone coverage that lasted for months.
At attempt to force pay-as-you-go SIM card customers to register using their real names was made in 2010 in the wake of the Urumqi clashes, but wasn't widely implemented because sales personnel quietly allowed people to buy cards using other people's identities, Zhang said.
"The sales agents got around this by borrowing people's details in large numbers to acquire registration for them, and then reselling the SIM cards in the market," he said.
A directive issued to the region's railways and seen by RFA also requires the administration to clear unofficial hawkers of second-hand phones away from railway property by May 1, in an apparent bid to limit the resale of phones and SIM cards on the black market.
A sales representative at Urumqi Hongshan's flagship mobile phone store confirmed the new move to implement real-name registration from was going ahead on the ground from May 1.
"We got a directive through [for implementation] by May 1," the salesperson said.
"If you have bought a SIM card, you have to come to the sales department and register with your real name," he said.
He said the company had no plans to cancel people's phone service over the May 1 Labor Day holiday, however.
"This will probably start on May 2," he said. "When the time comes, our employees will call you or text you to tell you."
Customers who choose not to comply will have their service terminated, he said, adding that the company's entire network across the region is undergoing changes and an upgrade.
"There is now a real-name registration system in all locations [in Xinjiang]," he said.
"This is according to a directive sent down from the communications bureau of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region government," he added.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.