“A longer, more pessimistic outlook [than the Economist’s special report on China’s internet].“ – the author
By Mo Zhixu, published: April 6, 2013
On March 28, the General Office of the State Council issued a “Notice about the Division of Labor in Implementing ‘the Plan for the State Council’s Institutional Reform and Function Change’” (国务院办公厅关于实施《国务院机构改革和职能转变方案》任务分工的通知) which lays out, among other things, the time table for implementing the information network real-name registration system (“The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology and State Internet Information Office, along with the Ministry of Public Security, will be in charge of it. It shall be completed by the end of June, 2014”); and for establishing a unified credit information platform and a unified social credit coding system based on citizens’ identification numbers (implementation will start in 2015 and be completed in 2017).
Few people would realize the connection between the two, and fewer people would think, as I do, that the gradual implementation of the online real-name system, a unified credit information platform, and a unified social credit code will mark the arrival of an unprecedented information totalitarianism.
The attempt to apply the online real-name system is nothing new. As early as the mid-1990s, when the state was drafting regulations on residential access to the Internet, the Ministry of Public Security wanted each computer to have a fixed, singular IP to access the Internet. It was a form of a real-name system since information such as a unique address and identification must be provided to apply for access. But due to technical reasons, such as the limited number of IVP4 addresses, what was then called the Ministry of Information Industry opposed that requirement. Arguments between the two ministries, according to a direct government source of mine at the time, went all the way to the then-top leader of China who made the decision to solve the issue with a simpler approach, perhaps to expedite China’s WTO entrance.
The attempt for a real-name system was then scrapped, but you can see that the attempt to control the Internet was on the mind of the Chinese government from the very beginning.
As Internet use skyrocketed, the government also became more and more vigilant. The notorious GFW has becoming more capable than ever with “walls” being erected higher and higher. But for the worth of the Internet, enthusiastic users have always found ways to scale the walls, and also to hide their traces under the searching eyes of the government. The large-scale surveillance and detentions during the non-existent Jasmine revolution in the spring of 2011 were largely a result of the government’s sense of crisis about hidden, cross-border information flow and its potential power to mobilize. Furthermore, with the emergence of Weibo and other social media platforms, the government has been alarmed by the fact that sudden events can spread and amplify instantly, and can potentially cause chain reactions. At the same time the government is less and less tolerant of the growing number of activists. As a result, Internet real-name system is becoming inevitable.
The real-name system has two purposes. One is the chilling effect, and it works very well on average netizens but not so much on activists. The other and the main purpose is to be able to locate activists and eliminate them from certain information/opinion platforms, in the same way that opinions of dissident intellectuals are completely eradicated from the traditional media.
The online real-name system has been implemented for some time now and the results are less than remarkable. A casual online search can yield a string of ID numbers which you can use to register online accounts. Because of this, many people have little sense of the Internet real-name grade system that is coming. The Internet real-name system that will be upon us soon enough will leave no hiding place for anyone, and all of the activists will be like fish caught in the net once this system is integrated with a unified credit information platform and a unified social credit coding system.
First of all, once the real-name system is used in website backstage management where one ID card matches one ID number, as Alipay (支付宝) does, those ID numbers culled online will soon become useless for repeated use. Secondly, with regard to activists using ID numbers of relatives and friends, if the conventional deterrence measures don’t work, the government could resort to building control into services by bundling ID card and the correlating social credit code with matters of personal interest. That way, relatives and friends will not want to, nor dare, to lend their ID numbers to anyone else.
Having established “a unified credit information platform with gradual input of information about finance, commercial registration, tax payments, social security contributions, traffic violations and other credit information” and “a unified social credit coding system based on identification number,” personal credit information will necessarily include information about Internet use. Thus, the Internet real-name system will be tied with one’s social credit code, and even with the social welfare system. From there, it’s not unimaginable for the government to use the unified credit code as the exclusive online ID code.
Imagine, when that becomes a reality, who would dare to let others use his or her credit code when so much is at stake? This code is tantamount to issuing you a “driver’s license” for speech: You will be subjected to point deductions for speech violations (which Weibo censorship frequently tells its users); once you have no points left, you will be barred from “going on the road” again, and that is, you will be barred permanently from speaking on information/opinion platforms. (After all, there are already plenty of citizens, such as Ai Weiwei, who have not been able to maintain a Weibo account without being deleted instantly–Yaxue)
You can imagine what it will be like in China’s online opinion platforms. First, the threat of being permanently banished from Internet access will have a much more powerful and chilling effect. Second, online opinion space will become similar to the grid management of stability maintenance in current life (网格化维稳)¹, that is, any activist, once exposed, will be stripped of access permanently, the same way the traditional media shut out dissenting voices. Consequently, online opinion platforms will be just like the traditional media today where you can never hear the voices of dissent and opposition. Finally, the chilling effect and the denial of activist users will make online platforms much less active; as a result, even non-sensitive emergency events will not spread explosively, nor are any chain reactions likely, due to the absence of active participation. This, as you can imagine, is a dream come true for the rulers of China.
By scaling the wall, activists perhaps will still be able to receive information, express their opinions, and exchange views with others on overseas platforms, but without reverberation and coordination on China’s domestic opinion platforms, the circles of activists will become small and isolated, making it difficult for them to participate in real-life events. This of course is a grim outlook, but by no means unheard of. After all, this had been the state of opposition activities in China before the rise of Internet. What makes me sad is that, while this brand new information totalitarian system is marching toward us in full gear, I see no realistic force that can stop its arrival. Despite today’s globalized world, a “Great China 1984” will be upon us within a few years of time.
¹ Following this post, Seeing Red in China will publish an exclusive article by Dr. Wu Qiang of Tsinghua University explaining “grid management”(网格管理) to our readers.
The Chinese original is published in the latest issue of iSunAffairs Weekly (No. 49). You can also find it here. Other commentaries by Mo Zhixu (@mozhixu) on this site: The Opposition Path and China’s Future; Perspective on Southern Weekend Incident: Root, Failure and Future.