Facebook, Twitter’s entry into China’s latest free trade zone?

One of the most popular stories this year on TeaLeafNation, a website that tracks what’s happening in China’s vibrant online world, was on the Chinese government lifting the ban on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube for a fee.

A cruel, single-line note at the end of the story wished readers an enjoyable April Fool’s Day.

Earlier this week, and with April far away, South China Morning Post (SCMP)’s story on the ban on these websites being lifted again caught readers’ attention. There was a twist as well: the entire blanket of ban was not being lifted; it was only for those living and working in the recently approved Shanghai Free Trade Zone (SFTZ).

The SFTZ is being officially launched on September 29, state media has reported.

“As authorised by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, the State Council will suspend administrative approvals covering foreign-funded enterprises, Chinese-foreign equity joint ventures and contractual joint ventures.

The State Council approved the pilot Shanghai FTZ on July 3. In the pilot zone, goods can be imported, processed and re-exported without the intervention of customs authorities,” a state media recently said.

The SCMP report, quoting informed anonymous sources, said the ban on NYT will also be lifted.

The ban was imposed last year after it did a story saying that the then Premier Wej Jiabao’s family had amassed a lot of wealth by using Wen’s good offices.

“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. 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,” a government source told the newspaper.

The government hasn’t yet confirmed the news..

But the Chinese government’s ban on foreign social networking sites has quite a bit to do with protecting its domestic Weibo or microblogs. And of course it’s much easier to censor domestic microblogs than foreign ones which allow a more unrestricted flow of speech.

But ironically government new websites, at least the English ones, allow readers to “like” and “follow” them on Facebook.

Recently, the Chinese consulate in San Francisco launched its official Facebook page and invited people to interact more with diplomats on it. It won’t be surprising if other Chinese embassies and consulates elsewhere also have eager FB pages.

The question is also how will the partial lifting of the ban within an area of 29 square km work? Does it mean that if someone inside the zone wants to add a friend, that friend would have to be a resident within the special zone as well?

How does this kind of restricted online freedom help in polishing China’s image as among the worst online censors in the world?

The government here very well knows that FB and Twitter allowed people to share information and updates during the recent uprisings in the Arab world.

Recently, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg was in Beijing on a trip, officially, to promote her book, Lean In.

She had good reason. According to Xinhua news agency, “nearly 130,000 copies of the book’s Chinese version have been sold in China since it was published in July, according to the CITIC Press Corporation, which published the book. The Chinese version of the book is now on its sixth print run.”

The speculation is whether she also discussed about FB’s partial entry into China with officials here.

It will be interesting to see how – if at all – FB’s, and other banned websites’, limited entry into China works.

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