China to grant access to Facebook, Twitter in Shanghai free trade zone
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China to grant access to Facebook, Twitter in Shanghai free trade zone

By Henry Belot

China will permit access to Facebook, Twitter and Western websites otherwise deemed to be politically sensitive in Shanghai’s new trade-free-zone (FTZ), according to an exclusive report by the South China Morning Post.

The Shanghai FTZ, which is set to launch on September 29, hopes to encourage foreign investment in China and create a yuan based financial sector open to international trade.  In a bid to minimise Western concerns and reassure international corporations, Chinese authorities have moved to peel back China’s Great Firewall – albeit selectively.

“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,” said an unidentified government source while speaking with the Hong Kong paper.

“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,” said the official.

Facebook and Twitter were famously banned in China following their role in organising the violent demonstrations of 2009 in the Western Province of Xinjiang. Websites like The New York Times and Bloomberg have been banned more recently in China following their reporting of the then Premier Wen Jiabao’s personal finances in 2012.

The decision to deregulate internet access in the FTZ isn’t the first time Chinese authorities have softened their otherwise hawkish censorship of the Internet to accommodate international visitors and business interests.

Beijing granted foreign press access to Facebook and Twitter during the 2008 Olympics although access was revoked at the conclusion of the games. In late August this year, Chinese authorities permitted access to Facebook and Twitter during the Fortune Global Forum in Chengdu, yet only in the Shangri-La Hotel which hosted the event.

The FTZ will initially span 28.78 square kilometres across the Pudong New Area to the east of Shanghai. The business zone, which will feature curtailed government intervention, may later be extended to cover the entirety of the Pudong district.

Despite the move to liberalise internet access in the FTZ, China consistently ranks as one of most heavily censored nations worldwide. According to a report commissioned by Freedom House in 2012 entitled Freedom on the Net, China ranks as the most restrictive nation in Asia trailing only Cuba and Iran.