Identity Verification on Weibo: The Beginning of the End of (Relative Yet Still Lovely) Free Speech?

Posted on December 16, 2011

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Finally, it happened.

Let me first backtrack a little bit. Despite the occasional blocking of sensitive terms and topics (read examples here and here), the Chinese government had been quite lenient with microblogging, or weibo, according to the “Chinese standards” of course. People actually can get information and talk about things on weibo sites the way they can’t anywhere else. Many people also use weibo as a venue to express their dissatisfaction and critical views about the government, officials, or social vile.

But that may change now, as the Beijing authorities finally behaved as it was almost expected to. The City issued a regulation today requiring all the weibo service providers registered in Beijing to require their users to verify their real identities before they can post on weibo sites. The regulation requires the providers to “prohibit and limit users who disseminate harmful information and to report to the police department immediately when they are aware of actions that endanger the safety and security of society or of possible criminal activities.” To emphasize, it reiterates that the service providers must “assist and cooperate with concerned agencies in their regulating effort.”

Since two of the most popular weibo service providers Sina (weibo.com) and Sohu (t.sohu.com) are both registered in Beijing, this regulation can have unprecedented impact on the social media scene in China.

On Sina’s weibo.com, users are enraged by this regulation. “There’s one kind of rapists: because raping everyone has been going so smoothly, [they] are not excited any more,” one user writes, “so [they] figured out a new trick: the rape victims must report their real names so as to satisfy the rapists’ new fetish… They gave this regulating measure an appropriate name—identity verification.”

Many weibo users fire at the government’s and officials’ lack of transparency in comparison with their control over citizens privacy. “It is incredibly difficult to make [the information of] officials’ assets public, but it only takes a piece of paper [for the government] to violate citizens’ privacy,” another user writes. “What is dictatorship? This is it! Have you discussed it with citizens before you made any policy? What is dictatorship? This is it!,” she/he continues.

Another user writes: “My weibo identity is verified, but have your assets been verified? … have your overseas green cards been verified? … has your using government vehicles for private use been verified? … has your using public funds for personal use been verified? … have your shabby construction projects been verified…? Weibo is no more than a social platform, just like people going to coffee shops or tea houses to chat. Have you ever seen anybody required to verify her/his identity to have a coffee?”

A user expresses her/his exasperation by depicting a very gloomy picture: “What’s going to happen after identity verification? What else can happen? Issuing laws to regulate the Internet, followed by prosecution based on speech (wenziyu), and then all those who are slightly critical of today’s society where the government officials conspire with businesses and thugs, where bribery and corruption [are rampant] will be thrown into jail. What else can it be? Today, rumor doesn’t even exist. There’re so many blood-boiling true stories that can’t be all told, and who has the time to spread rumors?”

Some users threaten to leave weibo.com. A user writes, “The day when weibo‘s identity verification takes effect, perhaps will also be the time when [I] say ‘goodbye’ to my friends online… It’s not that I’m afraid of anything, but I just don’t like it… I just don’t like it when I have to verify my identity before I open my mouth to chat… That is not chat… I might as well save the time to figure out things like Yi Jing and baguai.”

Others even threaten to take it to the street or the non-existing ballot booth. A user writes, “When there are fewer people on weibo, there will be more on the streets.” And another writes, “The day when weibo verifies identities is the day I vote with my feet!”

However, among all the angry voices, there’re some from whose who are not intimidated by the regulation. “Who’s scared of whom! If nobody’s scared, those thugs will be scared!” a user writes.

Another user points out that “the identities of most of the opinion leaders on weibo have been verified, which means that actually identity verification has long been applied to the core members of weibo. I hope people won’t see weibo‘s identity verification as intimidating. It’s just a paper tiger. Don’t be intimidated by it and stop talking from now. Just react to it like those who have been verified.”

He has a point. Identity verification has been offered as a service for public figures and celebrities long before the issuance of this regulation. Those with verified accounts are the ones who are the most popular and have the most influence on weibo, and many of them are quite vocal when it comes to commenting on social issues. However, this is also a group of elites who have more leverage confronting the authorities than ordinary citizens, who are more likely to be subject to sanction, often without even being known. The regulation is certainly worrisome.

Since Qin Dynastic in BC, the central government’s control over speech and culture has been consistently tight. There have been numerous periods when intellectuals and dissents were severely persecuted because of their speech or even their potential of speech. There have been a few moments in history when Chinese had a little bit more room to speak up and explore ideas, opinions and expressions, but they were all cut short, often accompanied by fire and blood. Are Chinese still willing to stand up for what we believe in? Is this the beginning of the end of another brief spring of relatively open public forum for information, ideas and expression in China?

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