Authorities in several regions of China have issued regulations to restrict inquiries into individuals' house registrations, a move that has aroused controversy after a slew of online exposes of corrupt government officials owning large amounts of property.
The government of Zhangzhou in southeast China's Fujian Province recently said that it would allow only homeowners, procuratorates, courts and housing security departments to file inquiries ver the property of a specific person.
The regulation is aimed at better protecting people's privacy, according to an announcement on Saturday.
Yancheng municipal government in eastern Jiangsu Province has also released a similar regulation, ruling that no one except homeowners, authorities and lawyers would be granted the right to make such inquiries.
"The illegal release of personal housing documents in some areas has provoked public worries over information security," according to Yancheng's announcement on Jan. 30.
In Guangzhou, capital of southern Guangdong Province, people have had to hand in their ID information before acquiring housing files since the beginning of this year.
Netizens worry that it will be more difficult to expose corrupt officials' illegal real estate ownership under the new systems.
A number of officials were punished last year after revelations that they illegally owned a large amount of real estate beyond their financial means.
A former director of the housing administration bureau in Henan Province was arrested after he was reported to have 31 houses last month.
Similarly, a police officer in Guangdong Province was dismissed earlier this month for allegedly owning 192 houses with dual national identity cards.
"The new regulations will only protect such people. It will be harder for the general public to fight corruption," said a netizen under the screen name "Qiao Zhifeng" on Sina Weibo, a popular Chinese microblogging service.
"Those who purchase apartments legally are not afraid of their information being released," said Kang Jiancan, a lawyer with the Beijing-based Long'an Law Firm.
Other netizens who support the regulations said the security of personal information is also a legitimate concern.
"Nobody would like to see his or her personal housing information revealed to others without permission," said Sina Weibo user "Wangchuanhe."
According to a national regulation on household registration issued by Ministry of Housing and Urban-rural Development in 2008, homeowners and related organizations have rights to file and copy housing registration information.
"It means that the new regional regulations are in accord with the national one," said Tang Xiaotian, a professor with Shanghai University of Political Science and Law.
However, some local governments have failed to keep a tight lid on the information and there have been leaks through illegal means, Tang added.
"While real estate information could be used by the public to fight corruption, it could equally be sold at high prices or released to political rivals," said Wen Jun, a professor with East China Normal University.
A recent Internet post claiming that the deputy head of the Pudong New District of Shanghai owns a large villa of 2,000 square meters seems to have illustrated the erroneous or malicious potential of such data. An ensuing investigation by the authority showed that his main building has a floor area of a mere 247 square meters with a 63-square-meter affiliated one-story house.
"False information like this can result in rumors circulating on the Internet and have negative impacts on anyone," Wen pointed out.
Others, however, have insisted that different standards should be applied to the general public and government officials.
Sina Weibo user "Taijibendao" suggested that government officials' housing information should be handed over to discipline inspection authorities and be available to the public through application.
"Only in this way could privacy be protected while illegal ownership of housing be supervised by us all," argued the netizen.