by Lilian Rogers
On April 29, 2010, Wang Chen, director of the State Council Information Office, delivered an address to the Standing Committee of the National People¡¯s Congress about an ever-pressing issue on the agenda of the Chinese government: the Internet. The speech was a compilation of the party-line on the increasing dominance of the Internet and its regulation. The part that struck a chord was Chen¡¯s remarks regarding the plan to reduce Internet user anonymity. A New York based group released a transcript of Chen¡¯s remarks, in which Chen describes ¡°an Internet real name system¡± that would mandate the use of real name identification in many areas, including in the comments sections of news stories and on online bulletin boards. Chen¡¯s speech had been posted on the NPC¡¯s website but was removed shortly after, seemingly due to the controversy surrounding the implementation of a real name system.
Some observers have described a so-called ¡®triple-speak¡¯ approach used in China¡¯s Internet strategy, wherein three separate narratives are distributed to different audiences. A white paper on Internet usage in China, intended for an international audience, was issued in June. The document assured its readers that ¡°Chinese citizens fully enjoy freedom of speech on the Internet.¡± Chen¡¯s speech comprised the internal report meant for state officials, whereas an edited copy of the speech was made for mainstream consumption by the Chinese people. As one can see in the transcript of Chen¡¯s speech to the NPC, there are clearly portions of Chen¡¯s speech that had been cut from the later version released to the public. Unsurprisingly, sections on the real-name system, as well as other mentions of increased internet regulation by the government, were cut. So was the list of situations in which Chen deemed Internet regulation to be crucial, which included included the violent incidents in both Lhasa and Urumqi in the last two years, earthquake rescue and relief efforts, educational and healthcare reforms and the ¡°Six Whys¡± discussions).
The speech is an interesting combination of excitement and dread. Chen praises the rise of the Internet, touting that, ¡°At present, about 99.1 percent of townships and 92 percent of villages are connected to the Internet ¡° and calling the Internet ¡°an important vehicle of advanced socialist cultural development.¡± But this is interspersed with repeated usage of the phrase ¡°guiding public opinion¡± as well as mentions of an Internet legal system that would ensure ¡°ideological security.¡± For the Chinese, regulation of the Internet is nothing new. The Great Firewall routinely blocks access to sites with material deemed sensitive. The use of a real name system, however, is a new development. Why the crackdown on anonymity?
Anonymity is inextricably linked to freedom of speech in China. Ostensibly, the new measure would enable the government to more easily track dissidents whose opinions it wants to repress. But there is another aspect to the requirement. The Chinese system of information control largely rests on self-censorship, where citizens filter themselves either out of fear of punitive measures by the government or because of cultural pressure to respect authority. The use of real names may lead to an increase in punitive actions against dissidents, but the most likely end result is that more internet users will simply remain mum on more sensitive issues.
The motivation for the move seems obvious. With the threat of a constant occurrence of ¡°mass incidents¡± at the forefront of government officials¡¯ minds, the Chinese government has expressed paranoia at any possibility of organization by a group of unsatisfied citizens. The Internet¡¯s unique ability to reach a large mass of people instantly has led to increased scrutiny into how to regulate the Internet. The requirement of real names is just another step towards completely rooting out politically sensitive material that could trigger protest or demonstration. The new regulatory measure accompanies the recent shutting down of numerous blogs in China
Will this measure work, though? Wang Minhan, at the Beijing Center for Policy Research, doesn¡¯t think the measure will pan out. She believes it is rather another example of the government saying something in order to stay ideologically consistent but won¡¯t actually carry through with it. For one, though the government isn¡¯t shy about massive regulation of the internet, it will probably be unwilling to institute a measure that will upset a majority of citizens. As the measure (and Chen¡¯s speech) was quickly hushed up, the full extent of discontent with a real name system remains unclear. The rapid removal of Chen¡¯s speech from the NPC website does suggest that party officials realize the potential for a controversy with a real-name system. Wang Minhan views the quick removal of Chen¡¯s remarks to be a surefire sign that the government wants the issue to be forgotten. The Chinese government relies largely on the political apathy of its citizens to get away with regulation; party officials won¡¯t want to risk anything that might legitimately spark widespread indignation.
Secondly, the potential benefits of the Internet prevent the Chinese government from pushing for extremely restrictive measures. Chen repeatedly refers to the developing the Internet ¡°scientifically¡±. His remarks show a marked concern for getting to the head of the pack when it comes to technology; he recognizes that the Internet is both the scientific and, in many ways, economic frontier. This concern for getting ahead may lead to relaxation in Internet control, though this certainly hasn¡¯t happened yet. Then there are the raw numbers. China has the world¡¯s largest online population, of more than 400 million users. Internet usage is ubiquitous, as Chinese have whole-heartedly embraced web culture, accessing the Internet not only from computers but on cell phones to chat, shop, as well as a myriad other activities. The sheer magnitude of Internet usage prevents the government from enacting any reform that would affect a majority of people in a way they perceive as negative.
The average Chinese citizen right now has probably not heard anything about the use of a real-name system, so it is hard to gauge the reaction to such a requirement. Wang Minhan has said she would switch to using a real name instead of a nickname for trivial matters, such as for posting comments about movies, but as for anything politically sensitive, she would simply abstain rather than risk it. For the average Chinese citizen, who can¡¯t risk losing a job or who is simply apathetic, the measure will probably succeed in acting as a preemptive strike against unwanted opinions. Similarly, those who currently blog under pseudonyms may keep writing if they¡¯re brave, but they may also decide that their opinions are not worth the damage they might cause. However, the measure would have little direct impact on bloggers who already use their real names. One such blogger is the infamous Han Han, a well-known Shanghai writer and racecar driver, who currently uses his real name to blog about sometimes politically sensitive topics. He is able to keep up his blog both because he doesn¡¯t have to fear losing his job, but even he doesn¡¯t know why he hasn¡¯t been muzzled, though some of his blog posts have been censored. Though they won¡¯t stop writing, these bloggers, as well as certain outspoken academics, are matters of potential concern for the government. Though these individuals may make up a small percentage of China¡¯s online population, they are respected and could galvanize support on many issues.