A crack in the Great Firewall?

A crack in the Great Firewall?

Whenever China announces policies to open up its economy or facilitate investment from abroad, the news is usually welcomed at home and abroad, but such policies or measures need to be fair. Not welcome are those that create discrimination or lead to greater disparity.

That's why the provincial government in the southern island province of Hainan has drawn flak for announcing the creation of a special "gathering zone" for foreign tourists where they can access censored social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Famed as "China's Hawaii" for its tropical climate and resort-lined coastline, Hainan is keen to draw even more visitors from abroad.

Under the three-year plan, usage of services including Facebook and Twitter would be allowed in areas of Hainan's two biggest cities, Haikou and Sanya, according to the provincial government's official website. It said access would be granted in areas where tourists gather, without being more specific. It also didn't say if the proposal had Beijing's blessing.

The plan marks a rare departure for China, where the overarching goal of maintaining social stability sustains the "Great Firewall". China zealously blocks many foreign websites and social networks through a sophisticated network of censors, restricting access to Instagram and Snapchat as well as foreign media including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Google has had most of its services blocked for years because it refuses to self-censor search results.

Hainan is looking to increase foreign visitor numbers by 25% annually to at least 2 million by 2020 and will promote tourism through advertising on foreign broadcasters including the BBC and CNN.

China aims to make Hainan an international free trade zone by 2020, which has precipitated a short-lived property boom. The island will also ensure credit and debit cards issued by Visa and Mastercard are accepted at major tourist sites, hotels and shops by 2019, according to the government website.

As well, it is dangling more generous subsidies in front of airlines to increase the number of international direct flight routes to 100 by 2020, along with lifting restrictions on foreign investment in air, rail and waterway transport.

Since May, travellers from 59 countries, including Thailand, have been allowed to visit Hainan for 30 days visa-free as part of a Beijing-approved drive to stimulate the island's economy. In the rest of China, travellers have to apply for visas through Chinese consulates abroad.

Local residents have applauded such moves, but they are not so happy about what they have dubbed the "internet concession" to foreigners. They say it treats Chinese internet users as second-class citizens.

"Are we establishing the 'one country, two systems' policy in Mainland China now?" said Wu Ran, a user on Weibo.

"This is completely despicable, shameless and obscene reverse discrimination," another commenter raged.

Thousands of similar comments were posted on Weibo but to no one's surprise, most were taken down quickly. And Chinese internet users wanting to view the original proposal will struggle to find it, after the Hainan government quickly removed the document from its website.

We don't know if the "internet concession" will become a reality on Hainan. Keep in mind, however, that back in 2013 when reports emerged that Facebook and Twitter would be accessible in Shanghai's new free-trade zone, the state-run People's Daily stepped in quickly to say no such concession would be made.

Meanwhile, a new airport, horse racing, online gaming and possibly even a casino, are also under consideration as part of a package of reforms to remake Hainan as a free-trade zone and signal its openness to the world.

Currently, Macau, a special administrative region of China, is the only place where casino gambling is legal. At US$33 billion, its gaming industry is the world's largest.

Income disparity in China is already on the rise as rising asset prices have primarily benefited top earners and that has fuelled social resentment. Disposable income of the wealthiest of the five social classes tracked by Beijing statisticians grew by 9.1% last year, after 8.3% growth the year before.

China's real estate bubble is a major factor in the widening income disparity as many of the wealthy have benefited from surging property prices. Meanwhile, curbs on rural migrant workers in urban centres have restricted earnings growth at the bottom of the income pyramid.

Any policy that could widen income disparity should be seriously considered and implemented carefully. Particularly, measures that are considered discriminatory and could lead to social division should be avoided in order to prevent potential backlash.

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