South China Morning Post is reporting that the Chinese government has decided to allow access to politically sensitive, Western websites like Facebook and Twitter within its new Free Trade Zone in Shanghai.
“In order to welcome foreign companies to invest and to let foreigners live and work happily in the free-trade zone, we must think about how we can make them feel like at home. If they can’t get onto Facebook or read The New York Times, they may naturally wonder how special the free-trade zone is compared with the rest of China,” the Hong Kong-based newspaper reported on Tuesday, citing an unnamed government official.
The report also said that foreign telecommunication companies would be allowed to compete with China’s “Big Three” internet providers—China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom—by obtaining licenses to provide internet access within the Shanghai Free Trade Zone. The Big Three are all state-owned and the Shanghai Free Trade Zone that is being pushed by Premier Li Keqiang and other Chinese leaders is being advertised as an attempt to reduce the influence of state-owned enterprises (SEOs).
Facebook and Twitter have been banned in mainland China since 2009, largely because of Chinese government fears that the social media websites will be utilized for political ends as they have been in numerous other countries, from Iran and the Arab world to the U.S. and other Western countries. The online editions of Western newspapers like The New York Times and Bloomberg have been blocked to internet users on the mainland since last year when the papers ran stories about the immense fortunes families of senior leaders like then-Premier Wen Jiabao had accumulated from their close ties to power.
The SCMP story did note that the lifting of the ban on these foreign sites would only apply to users within the Shanghai Free Trade Zone, not to the country at large.
Interestingly, the decision to allow access to foreign social media websites in Shanghai comes at a time when the Chinese government has redoubled efforts to censor domestic social media websites like Weibo. Under the guise of a crackdown on online rumors, at least dozens of activists and ordinary Chinese have been detained or arrested for the content they posted online.
Earlier this week the Wall Street Journal reported that the crackdown on postings on Weibo has led to a small exodus of Chinese activists away from the popular microblogging sites to more private services like WeChat. Some activists told the WSJ, however, that they believed their activity on those sites is also being tracked.
The Shanghai Free Trade Zone, which will stretch some 28 kilometers and may later be expanded, is expected to officially launch any day now. Foreign websites like Twitter and Facebook are not the only types of foreign businesses that will once again be allowed to operate on the mainland, at least within the FTZ. As The Diplomat previously reported, the production and sale of video game consoles like Xbox One and PlayStation 4 are also expected to be allowed within the Shanghai Free Trade Zone, after having been banned on the mainland since 2000.