China Mobile will start requiring prepaid phone customers to show ID when buying SIM (subscriber identity module) cards, the company's general manager announced.
The anonymity of phone service for Shenzhouxing (prepaid) customers, which ChinaTechNews says account for 70 percent of all users, made it important to hold on to your original SIM documentation in case you lose the phone. If you lose the SIM and its number, as far as I know, you can't get your number back.
This comes at a time when China Mobile will also begin allowing number portability among its services (but not with other carriers). As it stands, users wanting to switch from prepaid to a plan or vice versa have to buy new SIM cards and lose their phone number. New 150-prefix numbers are portable.
The ID requirement brings mobile service into line with an expanding "real name system" (实名制, also "identity verification") that ties individuals to their actions in the market and in communication. For non-Chinese used to providing ID numbers or credit card information for a variety of services, this may not seem like a big deal. But this removes a more or less anonymous form of communication that is not easily tracked by the government.
Indeed, the idea was pushed earlier by the Ministry of Security and State Council Information Office, according to Telecomasia.net. The real name system is not well-loved by online commentators. It's been considered for blogs, online games, and social-networking sites already. What it represents is a traceability of actions, and accountability for speech, since many people communicate in online gaming environments and through blogs and BBSs.
I'd hesitate to call these developments a true loss of liberty. The government can probably already find out who's using what phone most of the time if monitoring criminal activity. Like Lester on The Wire, they need only connect the dots in a network of communication. And like the people Lester chases on The Wire, people with something to hide will likely find workarounds. The phone ID requirement should make it easier for the government to monitor people, but I think it will also make it notably easier for regular customers to deal with services.