China is now requiring people setting up new mobile phone accounts to register with their real identities as part of a new government measure to reduce anonymity among the country's 800 million mobile users.
All carriers are to adopt the real-name registration system starting this month, said China Telecom spokesman Xu Fei. Within three years, the carriers must also register the real identities of all existing users.
"The policy on existing users is not being carried out very forcefully," Xu said. "If existing users do not register their names, their service probably will not be discontinued."
Street newsstands in China, where cell phone accounts were once conveniently sold, will also be prohibited from selling SIM cards, Xu added.
China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology has not released an official comment on the new policy.
China Unicom also confirmed that the real-name registration policy would start on Wednesday. "This policy will probably not be fully implemented starting today," said a company spokesman. "It will take some time."
China's phone carriers already have some policies in place to ensure users register with their real names. But analysts say that a large majority of China's mobile phone user population may have registered without real identification. Many of these users rely on prepaid phone services rather than contract plans that often require registration.
The new policy comes as China has been pushing users to register with their real names online. In August, online gamers had to begin real-name registration under regulations that are meant to protect minors from Internet addiction and "unhealthy" content.
The Chinese government is also taking steps toward an Internet real-name system, the director of China's State Council Information Office said in an April speech, the text of which was obtained by the group Human Rights in China. Buying cell phones and posting to web forums would be covered by such a system.
Implementing a real-name system for cell phone users will produce logistical challenges for the mobile carriers, while also creating fears about identity security, said Mark Natkin, managing director of Beijing-based Marbridge Consulting. Unregistered phone numbers could also very well become a more popular commodity.
"It will make certain consumers hesitate to buy a new number, if they think they can find another number at similar cost that isn't registered," he said.
Some cell phone users in China, however, say they welcome the new policy.
Li Junru, a student at China Agricultural University, said she recently lost her cell phone and wished she had properly registered it with the cell phone carrier. That way she might have a chance to recover the numbers stored on the device and terminate the phone service.
"I think it will be more secure and the carriers will be able to track and store my information," she said.
Cell phone users simply should register with their real identification, said Li Mi, a coffee shop worker. "This is good, it will be secure," she said. "I know some people will be afraid about revealing their personal information, but I don't think that will happen. The (companies) won't give that out."