China to Unblock Facebook and Twitter—but Only Inside the Shanghai Free Trade Zone

Throughout the rest of the country, the long-term bans on the popular social media sites will remain in place.
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An Internet cafe in Taiyuan, Shanxi province (Reuters)

China’s ambitious Shanghai Free Trade Zone is designed to welcome foreign investment and open up an attractive yuan-denominated financial sector to the rest of the world. But it’s hard to boast about free trade credentials behind the Great Firewall of China, so media outlets and social networks that are banned elsewhere in China will be available in the zone, the South China Morning Post reported today, citing unnamed government sources.

In addition, the government will consider bids from foreign telecommunications companies to provide internet service in the zone.

“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,” one source told the South China Morning Post. “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 Shanghai Free Trade Zone is seen as a potential threat to the pre-eminence of Hong Kong, which as a special administrative region of China has a relatively unfettered Internet where social networks and news sites are freely available. Hong Kong mogul Li Ka-shing, the richest man in Asia, has warned that Hong Kong risks falling behind as a finance center if it does not improve its competitiveness.

The Democracy Report

Facebook and Twitter have been blocked in China since 2009. The New York Times has been blocked by Chinese censors since a 2012 article about the wealth quietly accumulated by family members of former Chinese prime minister Wen Jiabao. Bloomberg’s news site and that of its sister magazine Businessweek have also been blocked since a 2012 article about the family finances of Xi Jinping, now China’s president. There has thus far been no mention of unblocking Bloomberg in the Shanghai Free Trade Zone.

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Heather Timmons is an Asia correspondent for Quartz.

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