Facebook (FB), Twitter, and the New York Times will soon be available in one small part of mainland China, but it’s probably premature to declare Shanghai’s free-trade zone, a government-approved experiment with capitalism, to be a great beachhead for U.S. companies lusting after the country’s hundreds of millions of Internet users.
On Tuesday, the South China Morning Post reported that the free trade zone will allow access to politically sensitive websites and let foreign telecommunications companies compete with domestic carriers. (It’s possible to create a separate branch of the Internet in the area because the undersea cables connecting mainland China to the rest of the world come through Shanghai.) The zone will have looser controls on capital flows, and the Post reports that the longstanding ban on many video-game consoles may be lifted, so long as companies manufacture the devices in China. Auction house Christie’s also thinks the free trade zone make it easier to import art to China.
Still, China clearly sees economic liberalization as something that can be achieved in isolation. The government isn’t allowing its citizens to take advantage of these new freedoms, and an unnamed government official told the Post that allowing access to politically sensitive sites is essentially part of a global marketing pitch.
“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,” the official said.
China has hardly shown any inclination toward liberalization of Internet use by its citizens. Earlier this month, a Chinese court said non-factual posts on social media that have been viewed more than 5,000 times, or forwarded more than 500 times, could be regarded as serious defamation and result in up to three years in prison. State television also recently broadcast a confession by Charles Xue, a famous liberal blogger accused of soliciting prostitutes, in which he warned against the danger of the uncontrolled Internet.
In the wake of the Arab Spring, the optimistic view was that once a population makes it onto the Internet, it is impossible to control. (That optimism has been tempered somewhat since the early successes.) But the question of Internet freedom in China isn’t really tied to Facebook or Twitter, anyway—the country’s locally grown alternatives to U.S. services are already thriving. If the Chinese government is concerned about the Internet’s potential to threaten its power, access by expatriates to foreign services in Shanghai is probably the least of its worries.