Reports emerged from China today that at first sight seem almost unbelievable: the Communist Party about to lift the Great Firewall and unblock access to Facebook, Twitter and a host of other banned sites.
Then the small print. If the anonymous government sources are speaking the truth, it will be only be relevant to Shanghai Free Trade Zone, a 28 sq km pilot project designed to encourage greater foreign investment in China and open its economy up to the international markets.
“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 government 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.”
Now while that seems fair enough, the Communist Party isn’t known for its love of unfettered access to the internet – after all the free flow of information online is precisely the sort of thing which it knows will lead to its demise.
So what’s this all about? Well, a few things sprung to mind:
- China is in the middle of one of the worst crack downs on online freedom anyone can remember, so don’t expect this localised liberalisation to spread anywhere else in the Middle Kingdom. The party is very much still for the suppression of any discussion it deems “harmful”.
- Even if the Great Firewall is lifted in the Shanghai zone, doing so from a technical standpoint will take time, according to Forrester analyst Bryan Wang.
“The network within the free trade zone will exist something like an intranet, which is connected to the international backbone without going through the Great Wall firewall,” he told me. “Current infrastructure will not be enough to support the future development. China Telecom or Unicom will need to lay out new fibre in the free trade zone.”
- The Party giveth and it taketh away. Nothing is confirmed yet, and until state-run media reprint the story, we can probably take it as just a rumour, possibly one designed to increase international publicity for the zone, which is a pet project of new premier Li Keqiang.
The whole free trade zone itself is only a pilot, so we can expect Beijing to bring the Great Firewall crashing back down on the region if its censorship-free internet policy backfires.
On a side note, how will Hong Kong react to the free trade zone?
If the Shanghai pilot is successful, more of them could spring up across China, effectively stealing its thunder as the only truly outward facing, economically liberalised, online censorship-free region in the Middle Kingdom.
Although a free and unfettered internet may soon no longer be a differentiator for Honkers, however, it’s likely that its superior IP protection regime, rule of law and business friendly visa system will still tip the balance in its favour for most MNCs.