China Tightens Reins on Internet to Block Anonymous Comments

2012-04 BIZ China Illustration H IPAD

The dominance of western brands in China has long been a sore spot for the country's leaders. Chinese authorities have begun to take greater notice -- and umbrage.

Facing a surge in blogs critical of the government and web exposes of official wrongdoing, Beijing approves a regulation requiring users to provide personal details before gaining online access.

HONG KONG -- Chinese bloggers no longer will be able to post anonymous messages as the country’s legislature rubber-stamped a new regulation requiring web users to provide personal details to service providers when registering for online access.

While the authorities described the initiative as an effort to "strengthen the protection of online information" -- with officials highlighting how clauses in the "draft decision" seeking to regulate the collection of personal data and the control of junk mail -- the new rule was enacted amid a surge of online disclosures of corruption and official wrongdoing.

The "decision," which is designed to foreground the passing of proper legislation on the issue, was passed Friday with a 145-1 vote (with five abstentions) by the standing committee of the National People’s Congress, a government spokesman announced at a Beijing news conference after the lawmaking body’s annual meeting.

STORY: 'V for Vendetta' Broadcast on China Central TV Shocks Viewers

While claiming the regulation will not hinder Chinese citizens’ ability to monitor governance or report on unlawful acts committed by government officials, legislative affairs commission deputy director Li Fei also said such online activities should be conducted "within the constitutional and legal framework" of the country and "should not violate the legal rights of the country, society, the collective and other citizens."

In fact, the approved version of the 12-clause measure begins by stating how the objective of the committee’s legislative decision stemmed from the consolidating of individual rights and also in the "protection of national security" -- an ambiguous concept that has been used frequently by Chinese authorities in silencing the country’s political dissidents.

China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, has spent his first weeks in power advocating much-publicized efforts in refashioning the country's political elite as closer to the people and transparent, with new directives calling for bans on excessive spending on official visits and making public the list of personal possessions held by top-ranking leaders.

But the government's latest act in tightening its control of the Internet came in the wake of a string of damaging online exposes of official wrongdoing -- the most high-profile being the leak of a video showing Lei Zhengfu, a party secretary from the city of Chongqing, having sex with an 18-year-old woman.

Zhu Ruifeng, the journalist who posted the clips on a Hong Kong-based website, said in a BBC interview that the tapes -- which he says were recorded by property developers providing Lei with the services of the teenager as a bribe -- had been sitting in storage at the city’s police headquarters, with officials unwilling to pursue the case. After viewing the tapes from a source and validating their authenticity, he uploaded them to the Internet -- causing a massive uproar in the blogosphere. Lei soon was sacked.

But there also were cases of activists being arrested or imprisoned for using the Internet to circulate material questioning the misconduct of government officials. Zhu Chengzhi, a dissident from Hunan province, is expected to face trial for "inciting subversion of state power" by posting a photograph showing the body of unionist Li Wangyang. Zhu’s picture disputes the official claim that Li committed suicide, pointing to the inability of the frail and near-blind activist to hang himself.