Due to well-known restrictions on Internet usage in China, any report that says people are free to go about their social media ways is immediately cast with doubt. However, those who are hoping that the country’s stringent policies over online activity are easing will be glad to know that yes, finally, China is allowing some leniency when it comes to the Web… provided that you stay within the “free-trade zone,” according to a South China Morning Post (SCMP) report.
So where exactly is the free-trade zone? SCMP describes it as an area spanning 28.78 square kilometers in Shanghai, China’s largest city in terms of population. The zone will be located in the city’s Pudong New Area and will include the Waigaoqiao duty-free zone, the Yangshan deepwater port, and the international airport area. According to SCMP’s anonymous government contacts, over the next couple of years the free-trade zone will eventually cover the entire Pudong district – an additional 1210.4 square kilometers – provided that this year’s initial move proves to be economically fruitful for the nation down the road.
China has always been known to be extremely conservative when it comes to the Internet – to date, there are more than 2,000 websites that are both currently and previously blocked in the mainland (not including Macau and Hong Kong), and according to Amnesty International, China “has the largest recorded number of imprisoned journalists and cyber-dissidents in the world.” Given the country’s inclination to Web censorship, the fact that access to previously banned websites within the free-trade zone has been approved by the government could be perceived as a step in the right direction. Some of the websites that are reportedly permitted in the free-trade zone are social networks Facebook and Twitter – which were both banned in 2009 – and the New York Times, which was banned last year. (We have reached out to Facebook, Twitter, and the New York Times for comment and this story will be updated if we receive response.)
Additionally, China is open to foreign interest in setting up shop within the zone, specifically bids from telecommunications companies that offer Internet connectivity. China Mobile, China Unicom, and China Telecom, three of the country’s biggest telecommunications companies, reportedly have no qualms about the potential for foreign competition since they are all state-owned corporations and the final decision to let international investors in was sanctioned by China’s top-tier leaders.
“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,” a source from the government told SCMP.
The Shanghai free-trade zone is scheduled for launch at the end of this month.
Vice President for Corporate Communications Eileen Murphy says The New York Times has no comment beyond acknowledging that the company has heard the same reports.
Facebook also has no comment, but a spokesperson forwarded us a link to a news report to ensure we “had the latest in the series of rumors”. According to the link, Chinese officials debunked SCMP’s earlier report and told the People’s Daily (a news outlet believed to be the “mouthpiece of the Communist Party”, thereby making their reports closer to accurate) that network management measures within the free-trade zone “will not change” and that online activity will still be closely monitored.