China’s internet users baptized the National People’s Congress as the “Beijing Fashion Week”, as a barely veiled excuse to deliver sarcastic comments, writes sociologist Tricia Wang (with co-author An Xiao Mina) in Wired. But that might be over when the ‘real name’ policy kicks in this week.
Yes, there are scattered, unabashed criticisms of the elite on Sina Weibo, China’s most popular and active microblog service. But subterfuge like “Beijing Fashion Week” helps China’s netizens feel safer about mocking the country’s all-powerful ruling class.
It’s becoming a familiar dodge on Sina Weibo, which functions similarly to Twitter and invites quick, frequent updates — but unlike Twitter, the bulk of whose members are in the United States, does not operate in a country where political speech is protected.
And all this may change in the face of a new, more stringent policy designed to clamp down on free expression where other methods have been less successful. In a move to exert greater control on citizen speech online, the government is requiring that Sina Weibo and China’s other microblogs register the real names and identification cards of users in several cities. Those who do not register this week in many major cities like Beijing will not be allowed to share or forward posts; after a period of testing, the policy will go into effect nationwide…
Even worse: the policy also threatens the vast majority of people who are not aware of or do not engage in political commentary. Just as many Facebook users now think twice about what they share online — even if not particularly controversial — real name registration may dampen the fun of microblogs as a casual place to let out some steam and relax with relative anonymity.
Microblogs have become a particularly lively, important and rare forum of public discussion in China. Real-name registration threatens this. And that is a major cause of concern for anyone hoping for a more free and open internet here.