Blogging for many people in China is the main form of open and (relatively) free communication. But users have started hushing up, as all entries must now be made under a real name.
Microblogs have become a hit in China. Over 250 million people use weibos, microblogs in English. Weibo is China's most prominent message platform, as Twitter is blocked, and it is extremely popular among the county's youth. The platform allows users to read messages sent by others and also write messages themselves.
"I am on Weibo every day. I post new comments every day. Microblogs have opened up a window of communication for us all," says one user.
Information spreads like wildfire on Weibo - even information about topics that are barely covered in the state media; Information, for example, on the political drama surrounding former top Communist Party member Bo Xilai who was removed from office as party head of Chongqing last week.
Protection of anonymity
Such platforms offer Chinese people a very new opportunity to engage in discussion about controversial or state sensitive topics. One thing that makes microblogging so attractive is the anonymity it offers, says Jeremy Goldkorn, a blogger and internet expert who lives in China.
"Quite a lot of the free will in discussion and the political criticism that goes on at the moment is amplified by people who don't use their real names. And a lot of Chinese Internet users feel more comfortable speaking their minds when they don't use their real names."
But now, the protective facade of anonymity is being dismantled - since Friday, March 16, all Weibo users have had to create accounts using their real names. The number of registered users has dropped dramatically since the new regulation went into effect.
Anonymity no more
Sina, China's largest platform, has received only three million new users since January. Last year, it had 20 million new users per month. The new law is scaring people off, says publicist Li Datong.
"Famous people are not afraid. But normal people are, especially those who criticize local governments - where there is usually a lot to criticize. One time, a person was sentenced to a whole year in a labor camp just for writing two sentences in a microblog. Of course the people are afraid," Li says.
By implementing the new law, the authorities want to prevent the spread of "irrational voices," "harmful information," rumors and "negative opinions."
But China's censors already have control over the microblogs. Politically sensitive texts are erased immediately - from the providers themselves, from whom the authorities demand to implement strict regulation.
Zhang Ming, a professor of political science known for his critical posts, became so frustrated by the censorship that he cancelled his Weibo just a few weeks ago.
"And they withheld my posts so that I thought I had published something, but no one else could read it. They blocked my account for days and erased my entries. They even restricted the number of my followers."
Zhang Ming is not the only one. Other prominent microbloggers have also announced their departure from Weibo.
And now that users must sign on using their real names, the Internet debates will certainly be toned down.
But the authorities know it is impossible to have total control over the Internet, says Jeremy Goldkorn.
"The Internet and platforms like Weibo have allowed ordinary Chinese people a platform to express themselves that is freer than anything in Chinese history. On the other hand, the government has got very good at guiding and controlling what's said. So in some ways, the Internet censorship is worse but it also has to deal with a tsunami of information that just never used to exist."
So, in other words, the game of cat and mouse between government censorship and those who wish to text their opinions freely is on to the next round.
Author: Ruth Kirchner / sb
Editor: Shamil Shams