China’s new leaders are increasing controls on internet use and electronic publishing following a spate of embarrassing online reports about official abuses of power.
The measures suggest China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, and others who took power in November share their predecessors’ anxiety about the internet’s potential to spread opposition to one-party rule.
“They are still very paranoid about the potentially destabilising effect of the internet,” said Willy Lam, a politics specialist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
“They are on the point of losing a monopoly on information, but they still are eager to control the dissemination of views.”
This week, China’s legislature revealed a measure requiring internet users to register their real names, a move that could curtail the web’s status as a forum to complain, often anonymously, about corruption and official abuses. It could be approved as soon as today.
That comes amid reports Beijing might be disrupting use of software that allows web users to see sites abroad that are blocked by its extensive filters. Regulators have also proposed rules that would bar foreign companies from distributing books, news, music and other material online in China. In a reminder of the web’s role as a political forum, a group of 70 prominent Chinese scholars and lawyers circulated an online petition this week appealing for free speech, independent courts and for the ruling party to encourage private enterprise.
Communist leaders who see the internet as a source of economic growth and better-paid jobs were slow to enforce the same level of control they impose on movies, books and other media, apparently for fear of hurting entertainment, shopping and other online businesses.
Until recently, web surfers could post comments online or on microblog services without leaving their names.
That gave ordinary Chinese an opportunity to express themselves in a society where newspapers, television and other media are state-controlled. The most popular microblog services say they have more than 300 million users and some users have millions of followers.
The internet also has given the public an opportunity to publicise accusations of official misconduct.
A party official in China’s south-west was fired in November after scenes from a videotape of him having sex with a young woman spread on the internet. Screenshots were uploaded by a former journalist in Beijing, Zhu Ruifeng, to his Hong Kong website, an online source for corruption allegations.
Some industry analysts suggest allowing web users in a controlled setting to vent helps communist leaders stay abreast of public sentiment.
Still, microblog services and online bulletin boards are required to employ censors to enforce content restrictions.
The main ruling party newspaper, People’s Daily, has called in recent weeks for tighter internet controls, saying rumours spread online have harmed the public. In one case, it said stories about a chemical plant explosion resulted in the deaths of four people in a car accident as they fled the area.