October 3, 2013, by Tony Hong

China to relax ban on Facebook and Twitter?

By Dr. David O’Brien,

Assistant Professor, School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China.

China may be about to relax its ban on foreign media websites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the New York Times in order to make ex-pats working in a pilot free-trade zone ‘feel more at home’. A recent South China Morning Post article quoted an unnamed government official as saying if foreigners “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”.

Facebook and Twitter have been banned in China since June 2009 when fierce riots erupted in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The authorities accused separatists and religious extremists of being behind the riots in the region – where the majority of the population are Muslim – and claimed that organisers living abroad had used social media to mobilise protestors as well as spreading false rumours about the incident and its aftermath. Since then it has been impossible to access some of the world’s most popular social media sites anywhere in China. The New York Times was also blocked in October last year after it ran a series of articles on family members of high-ranking Party leaders.

The Shanghai Free-Trade Zone was launched on September 29th by Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng, who said it was part of “a more active opening-up strategy”. The new zone will see a number if experimental polices being tried out such as allowing China’s heavily-regulated currency to be swapped freely for other currencies.

Some observers have claimed that it is one of the most important pieces of economic reform since China began to first ‘open-up’ under Deng Xiaoping.  China’s first Special Economic Zone was set up in Shenzhen in 1978 with one its main driving forces being Xi Zhongxun, the father of current President Xi Jinping

Another experimental policy that will be tried out in the new zone, according to South China Morning Post, will be allowing foreign telecom companies to compete with China’s big three – China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom – for a share of the market. China has been the world’s largest mobile phone market since 2006 and this year became the world’s largest smartphone market with over 77 million smartphones sold in the second quarter 2013.

Since the introduction of the ban on Facebook, Twitter and Youtube; Chinese social media sites such as Weibo and video sharing sites like Youku have seen a large increase in users.  An estimated 597 million Chinese are now active on social media with a truly staggering 3.2 billion social media accounts active. The top five social media sites in China are QZone which has about 700 million members; TenCent Weibo and Sina Weibo which both have approximately 500 million members each; micro messaging app WeChat which has in the region of 300 million users and another social network called Pengyou which has over 250 million members.

Interestingly last month Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg met with the head of China’s State Council Information Office Cai Mingzhao during a visit to Beijing. The pair discussed Facebook’s importance as Chinese enterprises continue to expand abroad “and various cooperation matters around that,” according to a post on the Council’s official website. And let’s not forget Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has been a frequent visitor to China, has been learning Mandarin since 2010 and married ethnically Chinese Priscilla Chan in May 2012.

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