It has been called the 'Great Firewall of China' and makes the Chinese internet a very different place from the world wide web. Now, the first cracks on the Great Firewall have appeared. China is set to allow full Facebook and Twitter access to foreigners who visit the tourist hub it plans to set up on the island of Hainan. However, a China-oriented news website has also reported that there has been a u-turn on this policy.
China has made a big deal about Hainan, and had used a recent summit to sell it to the world as 'China's Hawaii'. It plans to set up all the infrastructure necessary and focus on making the island a tourist hub for people from countries along its Belt and Road Initiative.
But, wait. Foreigners will not be able to access Facebook, Twitter or YouTube anywhere on the island. It will still be allowed only in specific zones that are set up specifically for foreigners. And, it will not be extended to local residents right away, according to an order already issued by the government of Hainan province, reported Global Times, the English paper backed by the ruling Communist Party of China.
"The special services may be first provided at hotels and restaurants receiving foreigners, but it will be gradually extended, and local residents may use Facebook and Twitter as well," predicts Zhang Lingyun, director of the Tourism Development Academy at Beijing Union University.
This policy may either be called a watershed moment or a surprise move in China, where the internet giants are not allowed to operate. Facebook and Twitter are banned, and a Chinese version of Twitter - Sina Weibo - operates in an environment that's disconnected from the rest of the internet. YouTube too is blocked in the country.
The ones who are allowed, like Google, operate under extreme restrictions. Even Weibo sees censorship quite often. Most recently, searches for 'Liang Xiangyi' were blocked. She was the reporter who sparked controversy for making a face at a fawning question to an official by a government-backed reporter.
The concession on Hainan is also significant because it is the first time the internet censorship regime would be relaxed in mainland China. Hong Kong and Macau are Special Administrative Regions, where the internet is free.
Chinese media reported that this relaxation for Hainan caused a major controversy on Chinese social media, like Weibo. Reports from watchers of Chinese social networks say most of the anger that was expressed lamented that Chinese citizens were being treated like second-class citizens in their own country.
This backlash has led to the proposal being shelved, reported Epoch Times, a news website that staunchly opposes the Communist Party of China. However, there has been no reflection of this on Chinese state-run media.