The countdown online was ominous. 'Ten days until real-name registration,' read a post from a Sina Weibo user nicknamed 'Linzongwei Piyan', which translates into an expletive. Microbloggers had for months been uneasy about the central gov-ernment's plan, announced in December, to have millions of users register their names and mobile numbers on March 16. Anonymous users would have to reveal their identities - or stop posting.
'[Scholar] Qian Zhongshu once said: 'Is it necessary for one to know the hen if one loves the eggs it lays?'' Linzongwei wrote. 'If they have an egg they don't like, they will carry a knife and slaughter the hen. Under such circumstances, real-name registration is necessary - at least it scares hens away from laying eggs easily. I am a hen that got scared.'
The post touched on a very sensitive issue: that the registration plan betrayed the party's deep fear of microblogs as tools for dissent. Sina Weibo, launched in 2009, has more than 250 million users. Wang Chen, the director of the State Council Information Office, admits the medium has the ability to 'mobilise people'.
It's a scary thought for the powers that be. Recently, they have had to deal with rumours of a coup, conspiracy theories and whispers of party betrayal following the high-profile downfall of top cadre Bo Xilai.
Microblogs are censored but canny users have come up with imaginative ways to get around the firewall. While the keyword 'Bo Xilai', or BXL, is typically blocked, those in the know refer to him as 'Tomato', the Offbeat China website notes. Joining him are 'Carrot' (Hu Jintao), 'Teletubby' (Wen Jiabao) and 'Master Kong' (Zhou Yongkang), named after the instant-noodle brand. You can only imagine how their public-relations people are coping.
But as the state forces people to provide their real names, even these evasive tactics may be subject to a clampdown. Above all, as director Wang has said, the regulation is designed to stop 'the spread of false rumour'.
Still, some believe the real-name registration scheme - now being tested in five cities, with plans to take it nationwide - is already faltering. Han Chiu, 28, who works for a digital publishing and internet start-up, believes it is 'a bluff'. He says: 'The policy is useless. Everyone still posts whatever they want, including old users. People are just putting up with it for now. I don't think [it] will have much influence on users. It's infantile stuff compared with other forms of censorship, but it's still an attack on freedom of speech.'
However, others believe it could have brutal consequences. A contact at Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong told me the worst-case scenario was that it would '[throttle] the small-scale whistle-blower' - ordinary people who have little opportunity to voice their opinions. Microblogs have given them the clout to expose issues - and, in the process, force the government to act.
For now, we will have to wait and see whether the government's plans will blow over - or if they will open the door for the authorities to chase the chickens who lay bad eggs.