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Yueran Zhang senior contributor

Unmasked: Public Outcry Sinks Real-name Registration Policy for Face Masks in Southern China

(Via Flickr/SimonQ錫濛譙)

Over the past few days, the Chinese public has seen another instance of the government overstepping the boundaries of its power – this time in an imaginative way. On May 24, a Sina Weibo user with the handle “I’m not a temporary worker” (@我不是临时工) tweeted that the Administration of Industry and Commerce of Anning County, Kunming City, Yunnan Province had decreed that all customers must provide their names and ID numbers in order to buy face masks in the county’s department stores, grocery stores and drugstores, which are now required to document the information for government inspection. The regulations took effect on May 21.

The news was soon confirmed by other netizens and media. Weibo user @王_小漾 even uploaded a photo he took of an account book used to document buyers’ ID numbers in a store. It was further determined that the administrative order was not exclusive to the Anning County. Reporters with the Southern Metropolis Daily phoned drugstores in other counties and districts of Kunming City, and almost all of them said that they were required to do the same. One store even revealed that the selling of face masks had been banned entirely. Moreover, the face mask was not the only commodity subject to regulation in Kunming. According to the Southern Metropolis Daily, print and copy shops were also required to collect their customers’ identifying information.

Although the government did not clarify the rationale behind those orders, citizens have made their guesses. First, a major petroleum refinery for the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), which was under construction in Kunming, has been a topic of major public concern in recent months. In a street protest on May 4, some protesters wore face masks to represent their fear of the environmental harm that the refinery might cause.

While attempting to appease citizens by using all available channels for public communication, authorities have also been vigilantly extinguishing any spark that could potentially grow into an uncontrollable fire. The orders issued to stores in the Kunming area were not only intended to restrict the use of face masks as a form of symbolic resistance, but also to prevent the printing of materials used to mobilize for collective action. Furthermore, the upcoming China-South Asia Expo is set to take place in Kunming from June 6 to 10. Before and during any major event in China, stability maintenance is regarded as the top priority. The Olympics in 2008, the World Expo in 2009 and the 18th Congress in 2012 are all classic examples.

The orders, once exposed to the public, have been questioned and ridiculed. The Beijing Times (@京华时报) pointed out that the issuing of the orders is not only unreasonable but illegal. According to the Administrative License Law, government agencies beneath the provincial level may not establish any real-name registration system. In a tweet which was reposted more than 2,000 times, the People’s Daily tagged the mayor of the Kunming City, asking him for an explanation. Ironically, the account of the Kunming mayor was set up in early May to deal with the oil refinery dispute.

Although the mayor did not respond, it seems that the public attention and clamor had some effect: on May 26, the Administration of Industry and Commerce of Anning County, Kunming City repealed its orders and openly apologized.

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Yueran Zhang

Yueran Zhang is a student at Duke University, class of 2015, currently majoring in sociology and math. He spent all of his life before college in Beijing.