For almost two decades, Chinese citizens have been defined, judged and, in some cases, constrained by their all-purpose national identification card, a laminated document the size of a driver’s license.

But starting next year, they will face something new and breathtaking in scale: an electronic card that will store that vital information for all 960 million eligible citizens on chips that the authorities anywhere can access.

Officials hope that the technologically advanced cards will help stamp out fraud and counterfeiting involving the current cards, protecting millions of people from those problems and saving billions of dollars.

Providing the cards to everyone is expected to take five or six years. But the vagueness and vastness of the undertaking has prompted some criticism that the data collection could be used to quash dissent and to infringe on privacy.

The project comes at a time when China is doggedly remaking itself into a leaner economic machine in line with the standards of the World Trade Organization. But China is also struggling to track a restless and poor rural population that continues to gravitate toward the cities. So officials are no doubt gambling that the cards can help them juggle two important if conflicting interests: promoting economic liberalization, while monitoring citizens in an increasingly fluid society.

There has been little public discussion or news about the new cards. Brief but rapturous accounts in the official press say the cards will “protect citizens.”

Yet many of China’s toughest critics, at home and abroad, are skeptical, objecting to the concentration of so much information at the government’s fingertips.

“Given the record of the Chinese government on protecting the privacy of its citizens and given the prevalence of corruption, how can we ensure that this information will be managed properly?” asked Nicolas Becquelin, research director at the Hong Kong office of Human Rights in China. “It’s scary what the Chinese government is doing, because there is no counterweight.”

The original identification card, introduced in 1985, contains such personal data as one’s nationality and birth date and an 18-digit identification number. It also indicates a person’s household registration, which has traditionally tied a person to his or her province of birth.

In June, China’s top legislative body, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, passed the National Citizen ID Law, approving the cards. They are to have a microchip storing personal data, but the face of the card is not to contain details any more personal than what is on the current cards. The cards are to be tested early next year, first in Shanghai, Shenzhen and Huzhou, a city in Zhejiang Province.

The agency in charge of the program, the Ministry of Public Security, declined to answer written questions seeking details. But in an interview published in July with Cards Tech and Security, a magazine of the Smart Card Forum of China, a trade group, two Public Security officials, Guo Xing and Liu Zhikui, said the current cards were too easy to forge and did not take advantage of technological advances.

They also said the new cards, which will feature a rendering of the Great Wall, would not look much different from the old ones.

“The ID card and the ID number are mainly going to be used to verify a resident’s identity, safeguard people’s rights, make it easier for people to organize activities and maintain law and order,” Mr. Guo said.

The use of electronic cards is not particularly new. Other governments and companies issue them. Hong Kong began issuing its own electronic ID cards in June.

With the Olympic Games approaching in 2008, China expects a growing demand for various cards, including transit cards, bank cards and social security cards, said Jafizwaty Haji Ishahak, an analyst in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, with Frost & Sullivan, a consulting company. The social services cards that are to be phased in should be able to track all the government services an individual receives, from health care to welfare.

More here.