Just a few years ago, no ordinary Chinese citizen would ever have heard sensitive news – say, for example, if a top Chinese policeman had spent a day in a US consulate, apparently seeking asylum.
Resourceful "citizen journalists" posted photos of police massing outside the US Consulate in Chengdu, screenshots of an airline passenger manifest, and other evidence suggesting that Wang Lijun had been at the consulate and then escorted to Beijing by a senior Chinese security official. More than 2 million posts flooded China's "weibos" – Twitter-like microblogs – in just a few days.
"Weibos are the freest place in China to speak," and anonymity is key to that says Zhang Ming, a politics professor at Beijing's Renmin University and a prolific microblogger.
But now the Chinese authorities are moving to curb that freedom, leading many to fear that the microblogs' freewheeling days are numbered.
Target: 'harmful information'
In the name of reducing the spread of pornography, defamation, and other "harmful information," the government is requiring weibo bloggers to register their police-issued personal identification number in order to post.
The move is designed to combat "irrational voices and negative public opinion," says the head of China's Internet regulator agency, Wang Chen. But many bloggers and Internet analysts fear that registration will cast a chill over the microblogs.
" 'Real name' registration will make people more aware of what they say," worries He Weifang, a microblogging law professor at Peking University. The fact that weibo operators will have to reveal user identities to police if asked will scare people off, he says.
"The government is telling microbloggers 'we are watching what you say,' " adds Bill Bishop, an Internet analyst here.
100s of millions use weibos
Microblogs have been the biggest craze in China for the past two years. Nearly half of China's 513 million Internet users have signed up for a weibo account, most of them on Sina and Tencent, the two most popular portals. (Twitter is blocked by government censors.) Chinese microbloggers send or re-post 150 million messages every day – compared with the 200 million daily tweets worldwide.
In a country where official media have little public credibility, 70 percent of microbloggers use weibo accounts as their primary source of news, according to a recent report by the China Academy of Social Sciences, and 60 percent regard them as reliable.
Under the new rules, currently in effect in Beijing and a handful of other cities but slated to go nationwide this year, users will still be able to follow others without registering their real identities; they just won't be allowed to post their own comments.
But the appeal of weibos depends on prominent "thought leaders," says Mark Natkin, who runs an Internet consultancy here.
The December requirement that new users identify themselves seems to have already had an impact.
Sina Weibo, which boasted 20 million new users every month last year, signed up only 3 million new users in January, according to Chinese press reports.
"That's a pretty precipitous falloff," says Mr. Bishop. Although the drop could reflect the fact that many accounts on Sina are "zombie" accounts created to boost the number of followers for various bloggers, it also suggests that citizens are reluctant to reveal themselves to weibo operators.
Microblogs have posed a problem to the government, says Bishop, because "control of propaganda is a key pillar in the government's control of the country, and weibos cut out the propaganda apparatus." Weibos enable people to communicate directly with each other. "Information is getting out all over the place," he says.
The speed at which messages can be re-posted "is almost instantaneous," adds Mr. Natkin. "It's like Pandora's box. Once something's out, it's out."
Local government officials especially "feel very unhappy and very threatened" by weibos, says Zhan Jiang, a journalism professor at Beijing's Foreign Studies University, because local scandals can attract central government attention very quickly.
Sina Weibo and other operators have created "rumor control" departments that employ people and automated keyword filters to censor sensitive posts; they can block users from posting messages that touch on awkward issues and close accounts belonging to repeat offenders such as prominent dissident artist Ai Weiwei. But these controls are not always 100 percent effective.
The new rules, issued by Beijing, ban weibo users from a range of vaguely defined activities, such as "undermining national unity," "spreading rumors, disturbing social order, or undermining social stability," and "illegal activities on behalf of civil society organizations."
If people are less willing to post on sensitive topics, the Chinese blogosphere will become less lively and less appealing, observers say. "There's a risk that microblogs will become irrelevant," warns Professor He. "If fewer and fewer people use them, their influence will wane."
Real name registration would not be a problem if free speech were not a crime, adds Professor Zhang. "But in China, it is still a crime."