The National People's Congress Standing Committee passed controversial internet rules yesterday that critics say will further rein in the internet's role as a forum for the free exchange of ideas and deter potential whistleblowers seeking to expose corruption.
The NPC Standing Committee said, however, that the rules would enhance the protection of personal information online and safeguard public interests.
The Decision to Strengthen the Protection of Online Information was passed without public consultation and after just one reading.
The new rules, which have the same legal effect as a law, ban the obtaining of personal digital information by theft or other illegal means, selling such information or illegally providing it to others.
State media have been trumpeting how the new rules will be used to shield internet users from harassing phone calls and fraud involving personal information.
But internet users and critics are concerned that the rules will enable stricter control of cyberspace by requiring the registration of real names whenever they sign up for internet access, a phone service or publish online.
In recent years, the internet has become a popular and powerful platform for people to vent their discontent about party officials' misbehaviour, targeting their extravagant lifestyles and extramarital affairs, the bullying of petitioners and possession of multiple properties. Such complaints have occasionally resulted in official investigations and sometimes the downfall of the officials involved.
Under the new rules, internet service providers will also be required to "step up the management of information published by their users".
Qiao Mu , an associate professor of communications at Beijing Foreign Studies University, said real-name registration would not stop online fraud but instead become a political tool for the government to exert control over the internet, especially after a recent spate of online exposés of corrupt officials.
"It's like a continuous reminder that big brother is watching you," Qiao said. "Apparently the new leadership do not like common people taking the lead in fighting corruption. They want to keep it in the hands of the party disciplinary body, with the internet being an ornament only."
He said the NPC must have considered the role played by social media in the Arab world's anti-government protests.
Li Fei , deputy director of the NPC's Legislative Affairs Committee, denied that the government was seeking to prevent the exposure of corruption.
"When citizens exercise these rights according to the law, no organisation or individual can use any reason or excuse to interfere, and cannot suppress them or exact revenge," he said, while adding that internet users must not harm the rights and interests of the state, society, or citizens.
Meanwhile, yesterday's meeting also decided to convene the first plenary session of the 12th National People's Congress on March 5. At that meeting top officials, including the country's president, will be appointed by the NPC.
The meeting also appointed Guo Shengkun, former party secretary of Guangxi , as the new minister of public security.