China's recent history has been marked by two key features: rampant economic growth and tight governmental control on the spread of information. Now, it seems, both are starting to wane, as economic expansion is slowing down and even the government's zealous grip on the internet is beginning to loosen. A report from the South China Morning Post today cites sources within the Chinese government who say that the country's ban on a number of globally popular social and news services will be lifted within the special Shanghai free trade zone.
Twitter, Facebook, and The New York Times are explicitly named as websites that will be accessible within the area, but the phrasing of the report suggests there'll be other politically sensitive online sources that also see their ban lifted.
The goal, as one of the insiders points out, is to make foreign visitors to the country feel more at home — which in turn is hoped to stimulate more trade and investment from overseas. A month ago, the Morning Post also reported anecdotal evidence of Twitter and Facebook being accessible in high-end hotels across China, with the ostensible reason again being to accommodate the expectations of foreign businessmen. China initially blocked access to Facebook back in 2009 in the wake of ethnic violence in its northwestern city of Urumqi, with the aim being either to suppress unfavorable information, prevent further clashes, or a mix of both. The country's apparent willingness to make exceptions for foreign travellers looks to be an attempt to balance that tight grip on internal communications with the need to attract outsider interest.
Update: A conflicting report from China's state-run media refutes the suggestion that the Shanghai free trade zone will be treated any differently from the rest of the country.