The Truth Behind the Chinese Real Name System


In a populous country like China, it is easy to feel lost among 1.3 billion people. But not anymore. With the increasing use of the Real Name System across China, total anonymity is no longer an option. These days, it seems that there is little you can do in China without showing some form of ID. Even mundane activities like buying train tickets and checking your email at an internet cafe can only be performed using your real name and ID. China's version of Big Brother, the Real Name System, is the latest effort to maintain some form of control over her vast population.

How it all started…

The Real Name System may have been already applied to a plethora of services in China, but its foremost application is in the area of long-distance train ticketing. By all appearances, Real Name System seems to be the central government's reaction to last year's rail scandal, in which disgraced rail minister, Lin Zhijun, was linked to extensive ticket scalping networks, amidst other graft charges. By linking ticket purchases to some form of ID, this system should effectively eradicate ticket hoarding by scalpers.

Since then, the Real Name System has been applied to long distance bus ticketing, "Lily Networks" (the local moniker for matchmaking services), express deliveries, Twitter-like microblogs, buying knives, online shopping and mobile line registrations, to name a few. In fact, in Guangxi and Hunan, it has even been proposed applying the Real Name System to HIV testing.

The Pros

In most applications, the Real Name System makes sense. The most notable example, train ticketing has the obvious benefit of protecting the migrant population from scalping by ticket hoarders. This black market is especially widespread and lucrative, when China's large migrant population returns home in droves for the annual Chinese New Year reunion. Side benefits of such a system include helping to solve crimes related to or committed on railway lines.

In other services, match-making is another area where the Real Name System can prevent predators from preying on the hopeful and naive. Similarly with online shopping, where validated IDs can offer assurance to both buyers and sellers that they are transacting with bona fide partners.

The Cons

While most applications of the Real Name System have obvious benefits for users, some aspects smack of "Big Brother". Requiring users to register with the real ID on microblogs (intended to eliminate the "spread of rumours and spamming") is a thinly disguised attempt to break down anonymity afforded by the Internet. Compulsory registration of mobile phone lines is also a step in this direction. More extreme applications, as in the case of real name HIV testing, dangerous repercussions include deterring voluntary testing.

Even in cases where the Real Name System makes sense, sceptics and detractors are quick to point out loopholes which could render the system ineffective. At present, the Real Name System in still insufficiently supported by current legislation. Aside from that, it is unlikely to be a sufficient deterrent, especially in the area of train ticket sales. It is not difficult for scalpers to manufacture fake IDs or rent them from cooperative citizens. From the user's perspective, there is the increase in time and convenience costs from inputting personal information (for phone and online registrations) and furnishing proofs of ID during random checks. Users also expose themselves to loss of privacy, especially through hacking and sale of private information.

Looking more closely at train tickets sales, an area where the Real Name System was first conceived and where consumers are expected to reap the most benefits, scepticism is actually at its highest. Locals believe that scalping is an inside job where tickets sold on the black market are obtained through guanxi (connections), rather than at the counter. Besides, high passenger volumes during golden holidays could potentially paralyse the ticket sales system and cause delays in boarding. Having ID numbers printed on tickets exposes passengers to the risk of identity theft.

To the average local, on the top of their list of concerns are practical issues like the efficacy of the Real Name System, as well as time and convenience costs involved in having to furnish ID for mundane transactions. Issues like the loss of privacy and possible identity theft rank pretty low on that list. In fact, train passengers are mostly unaware of the need to destroy used train tickets and may dispose of them indiscriminately after the trip. Residents staying near busy stations have been known to retrieve ticket litter and sell them to buyers of personal information. By and large, given that Chinese are largely pragmatic, this is hardly surprising.

How does it affect foreigners?

For foreigners living in China, the Real Name System could come as the newest wave of erosion of privacy, something the old timers in China would hardly bat an eyelid to anymore. On a day-to-day basis, having to show one's passport at more places than usual would serve to make mundane transactions more of a challenge.

Moreover, where computer systems cater to Chinese names and IDs, frontline staff are often confounded by passports without Chinese words on them. To get around this problem, rail officials advise foreign passengers to use residence permits, which are issued by the police department and hence more user-friendly. Although automatic ticketing machines at stations only recognise Chinese IDs, passport bookings by phone are possible.

While the Real Name System passed without a hitch on China's railway network during the Spring Festival that just passed, it is still too early to judge its efficacy. But one thing's for sure – the Real Name System is here to stay in China and will be applied more widely as time goes on.

Article Source:Echinacities News