Beijing: In the first sign of opening up on the political front, China has decided to lift ban on foreign websites, including Facebook and Twitter, in the new multi-billion dollar Shanghai Free Trade Zone (FTZ) to encourage more foreign investment, a media report said Tuesday.
The opening up will be confined to the Shanghai FTZ, the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported.
A number of Foreign websites including that the New York Times would be permitted in the FTZ.
The NYT website in China was blocked after it carried out a story alleging that the family of former Premier Wen Jiabao accumulated USD 2.7 billion assets.
Government sources who were knowledgeable about the decision told the Post that the authority in charge of the Hong Kong-like FTZ in Shanghai, the first such zone on the mainland, would also welcome bids from foreign telecommunications companies for licences to provide internet services within the new special economic zone.
Social networking websites Facebook and Twitter which took the world by storm creating an integrated social media encompassing the world remained banned in China from 2009. But at the same China's own twitter like microblog network Sina Weibo grew leaps and bounds in the past few years.
In the last few years the microblog accounts reached about 300 million emerging as alternative media in the country challenging the monopoly of the state media.
China has the world's largest Internet user population, with 485 million. The ban became more stringent as Facebook and Twitter played key role in political movements in the Middle East in recent years, and Beijing is concerned about the impact of new media on social stability.
Although China's economy is now already the world's second largest, just behind the United States, Beijing keeps tight control over the media. It blocks access to several internet websites through the Great Firewall of China, the colloquial name for the Golden Shield project which is operated by the Ministry of Public Security.
Also China's three biggest telecommunications companies China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom, which are all state-owned enterprises, have already been informed of the decision to allow foreign companies to compete with them for business in the FTZ in Shanghai, the Post reported.
The Big Three didn't raise complaints as they knew it was a decision endorsed by top Chinese leaders including Premier Li Keqiang, who is keen to make the FTZ a key proving ground for significant financial and economic reforms, sources added.
"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 NYT they may naturally wonder how special the free-trade zone is compared with the rest of China," the Post quoted an official as saying.
However, Beijing's decision to open up internet access only applies to the FTZ and not anywhere else in the country, the sources said.
In late August the State Council, China's cabinet, approved the launch of the FTZ in Shanghai, which will span in 28.78 square kilometres in the city's Pudong New Area, including the Waigaoqiao duty-free zone, Yangshan deepwater port, and the international airport area.
Government sources told the Post earlier this month that the FTZ could be eventually expanded over the next few years to include the entire Pudong district, which covers 1,210.4 square kilometres, if the first-phase launch is proved a success in helping China to restructure its economy.
The government hopes the FTZ will attract more foreign investment and liberalise the nation’s foreign exchange and interest rate system, making capital flow much more easily.