Days after China’s top censors put forward rules on name verification for online commenting, one of China’s most important social media platforms — Sina Weibo — issued a notice stating that all users would be required to register with real names by September 15. Chinese authorities are intent on tightening Internet controls ahead of the 19th national congress of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) planned to begin October 18.
The Chinese government has tried to push real-name registration for online platforms multiple times, but enforcement was never strict and the efforts drew international criticism. For example, in 2011 the Beijing municipal government issued a real-name verification regulation, but Weibo didn’t carry out the regulation fully. Some netizens hope that the new rules will end up without full implementation as before.
Yet China’s censors seem serious this time. According to the official notice issued on September 8, all Weibo’s users — including users who became members before 2011 — should verify their real names by linking their cell phone numbers with their accounts by September 15. China adopted real-name verification for cell phone numbers years ago, meaning that linking a cell phone to the account more concretely verifies a person’s identity. As for those users who refuse to register their numbers, they will not be able to post, repost or comment on Weibo after the deadline. Although the notice sets the deadline on September 15, multiple unregistered users confirmed that they have already been forbidden from posting anything now. Ironically, the platform sends such users an automatic message: “To ensure your account’s safety, please link your phone number.”
In addition, Weibo hasn’t clarified the procedure for overseas users (including users in Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan) on how to verify their identification, which means that thousands of overseas users have already been blocked from meaningful use of the platform.
This is not the first time that overseas users have encountered discriminative rules on Weibo. Several days before and after June 4, 2017 — the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989 — Weibo unprecedentedly banned all overseas users from uploading images or videos. Trying to cover the intention of the ban, Weibo explained that it was because of system upgrade.
The latest real-name verification rules will undoubtedly hurt Weibo’s user base, its overseas reach in particular. However, compared to its large user base now, Weibo might not care much about the loss of overseas users.
By the first quarter of 2017, Weibo has surpassed Twitter which has around 328 million active monthly users) with a total of 340 million active monthly users, according to Weibo’s own data. Notably, about 154 million people use Weibo daily, 91 percent of whom access it via mobile.
Pushed by the outstanding performance, Weibo’s stock, listed on the Nasdaq, reached a new high in September and received multiple buying recommendations from global analysts.