Access to Facebook and other politically sensitive web services is to be allowed in China’s new Shanghai free-trade zone, according to a report in the South China Morning Post. The newspaper also said on Tuesday that foreign telecommunications companies will be able to apply to operate in the zone.
China generally bans access to many leading western social media and news websites and services, through a heavyweight censorship tool jokingly known as the Great Firewall. Shanghai is the newest of China’s 15 free-trade zones – enclaves where certain economic rules are relaxed – and the newspaper said the localized unblocking of sites such as Facebook was designed to help foreigners investing and living there “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 source is quoted as saying.
China has many homegrown equivalents to western social media operations, such as the microblogging site Sina Weibo. Authorities monitor and occasionally censor these services, particularly to dampen attempts at collective action. It remains to be seen what (if any) censorship the western companies operating in the Shanghai free-trade zone will need to institute – as Google will testify, this is a sticky area.
The Shanghai free-trade zone is a special case in several ways. Announced this July, it will be used to test interest rate liberalization as well as full convertibility of the yuan currency.
It’s not quite clear yet how internet controls would be relaxed for the Shanghai free-trade zone, technically speaking. It could be that the Great Firewall could be trained to ignore traffic coming from local IP addresses, or it could be a matter of laying discrete fiber for the zone — it’s worth noting that Shanghai is the landing point for the major undersea cables coming from Europe and elsewhere, so a separate network could potentially be viable.