“You can finally use Facebook and Twitter in Shanghai! No, actually you cannot. Wait, we’re not sure.” This pretty much sums up what is known about the possibility of accessing these social networks – along with the New York Times’ website, which has been blocked following a clash with Chinese authorities – in the new Free Trade Zone in Shanghai.
Inside the zone, which covers 28 square kilometers and was launched last Sunday, companies will enjoy looser regulations in a variety of sectors, from services to videogames. Most reforms should come gradually in the next three years, but the project is already being hailed as a possible turning point and comparisons have been drawn with the opening of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone in 1980, at the time a ground-breaking initiative. Chen Bingcai, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Governance, told Xinhua News Agency that “nationally, the FTZ is seen as a testing ground for new policies and reform,” and “will take the lead in driving growth in the Yangtze River Delta and even the entire nation.”
Along with the economic importance of the project, what has grabbed many headlines was the possibility that non-Chinese social networks and other banned websites could be accessed freely inside the area. The rumor began to circulate on September 25, when the South China Morning Post quoted unnamed official sources as saying that one of the perks of the Free Trade Zone would be access to the wider web. Excitment followed: western social media have been banned since 2009 and reopening them might be a sign of political liberalization.
On September 27, the State Council issued a note which added fuel to the fire: “under the premise of securing information safety on the internet, foreign companies are allowed to operate some special forms of value-added telecommunication services, if it involves or goes beyond the laws and regulations, the State Council has to give its consent.” Twitter and Facebook rightfully fall into the category of “foreign telecommunication services” and one would be tempted to think that there was a chance for a comeback.
Expectations grew fast, but a cold shower was just ar0und the corner. On the same day of the State Council’s statement, Xinhua quoted “relevant staff from the regulatory committee of the Shanghai Free Trade Zone” as saying that that the internet in the Free Trade Zone will be “managed by law with no exceptions”. No Twitter and/or Facebook, it seemed. The report, however, had a tricky ending: it repeated the State Council line, the one which looked benign to foreign social networks, giving the impression that not all hope is lost.
In the past few days, Chinese social networks and the media have been mostly silent on the issue, but one thing is clear: given the information made public, the government can pretty much defend any decision it will take. If social networks are not accessible it is because there is “no exception,” or because only some of them have been granted permission to operate. If they are available, it is because “foreign companies are allowed to operate some value-added telecommunication services.” If they are working now but will be closed in the future it is because they constitute a concern and go beyond the law, which means that the State Council has denied its approval.
As to finding out the reasons of such confusion, you need to jump from reading law jargon to reading tea leaves. A possible explanation might be that Chinese leaders, in a rush to show their willingness to reform the country at a time of economic slow-down, have not considered what to do in detail. But this would be rather unusual for them: freedom of expression in the People’s Republic is a hot topic on the media all around the world and officials would likely have thought of this issue before coming out with their plan. Then, it might be that at first the consensus was to provide full access but then the administration had second thoughts and opted for a more nuanced approach, or that there are conflicting opinions inside the administration. No one knows for sure: reading tea leaves is notoriously hard.