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China forces internet users to use their real names

A Chinese city where residents recently held mass protests against a planned chemicals plant is preparing to tighten controls on the internet and force users to use their real names when posting messages on local websites.

The decision by the south-eastern city of Xiamen appears to be a response to the role played by the internet in the organisation of demonstrations last month that forced suspension of plans to build a Rmb11bn ($1.4bn) plant to produce paraxylene (PX), a chemical feedstock, in the city.

The decision to force disclosure of names by means of fresh rules emphasises the desire of Chinese officials to mitigate the anonymity the web offers.

The central government has been considering rules to force users of blogs and message boards to use their real names, but appears to have postponed the attempt in response to industry protests and technical difficulties. The head of the Internet Society of China said in May the conditions for a “real-name system” were “not yet mature”.

However, Xiamen’s draft rules, which state media said were drawn up in about two weeks, represent a highly unusual effort by an individual city to go beyond the already sweeping internet controls imposed by China’s central government.

In comments widely reported by local media, Tian Feng, deputy head of the municipal Industry and Commerce Bureau, said the rules would be the first of their type imposed at a city level in China.

“After the opposition [to] the PX project, the [city] government felt that it should have some control over web content,” Mr Tian was reported to have said.

However, local media also quoted an official of the secretive propaganda arm of China’s ruling Communist party as saying there was no link between the draft rules and the PX plant protests.

There seems little doubt, however, Xiamen officials were stung by the scale of opposition to the plant, which planners see as supporting the future economic growth of what has been one of south-eastern China’s biggest boom towns.

The rules prompted immediate criticism by internet users. Many news websites hosted comments by an academic saying only the National People’s Congress, China’s parliament, could legislate upon issues that affected freedom of speech. Xiamen’s leaders had “no right to legislate to ban anonymous postings”, the academic wrote.

City leaders already have several means to put pressure on local websites. Those found guilty of hosting content that is judged to be hostile are often punished by fines and even by closure.

Content banned by the draft rules – which range from information judged seditious to any attempt to organise illegal gatherings – closely echoes the vague wording of national internet regulations.

By imposing rules at city level, Xiamen’s leaders may intend to gain a freer hand to define content as harmful.

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