" 'Real name' registration will make people more aware of what they say," worries He Weifang, a microblogging law professor at Peking University. The fact that weibo operators will have to reveal user identities to police if asked will scare people off, he says.
"The government is telling microbloggers 'we are watching what you say,' " adds Bill Bishop, an Internet analyst here.
Microblogs have been the biggest craze in China for the past two years. Nearly half of China's 513 million Internet users have signed up for a weibo account, most of them on Sina and Tencent, the two most popular portals. (Twitter is blocked by government censors.) Chinese microbloggers send or re-post 150 million messages every day – compared with the 200 million daily tweets worldwide.
In a country where official media have little public credibility, 70 percent of microbloggers use weibo accounts as their primary source of news, according to a recent report by the China Academy of Social Sciences, and 60 percent regard them as reliable.
Under the new rules, currently in effect in Beijing and a handful of other cities but slated to go nationwide this year, users will still be able to follow others without registering their real identities; they just won't be allowed to post their own comments.
But the appeal of weibos depends on prominent "thought leaders," says Mark Natkin, who runs an Internet consultancy here.
The December requirement that new users identify themselves seems to have already had an impact.
Sina Weibo, which boasted 20 million new users every month last year, signed up only 3 million new users in January, according to Chinese press reports.