China looks set to lift parts of its “Great Firewall” in an effort to please foreign travelers and boost tourism.
But the easing of its tight internet restrictions would only affect a small part of the country, namely the southern island province of Hainan. Dubbed “China’s Hawaii” for its comfortable climate and miles of beaches, Hainan is receiving large amounts of government investment as part of plans to attract more travelers and to make the location a free-trade zone by 2020.
The so-called Great Firewall of China stops its citizens from accessing popular online services such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, as well as many overseas news websites. It was set up in a bid to limit Western influence in the country and to stop the spread of information that its leaders fear could lead to social unrest. The blocks can be circumvented by those who know how to use the relevant tools, though such action is taken at their own risk.
The Hainan plans were published on the local government’s website last Thursday, but, somewhat ironically, the content had disappeared by the following day, the South China Morning Post reported. Multiple news sites throughout China continued to report the development, however.
About three times larger than Hawaii’s Big Island, visitors to Hainan will be able to access many online services that are usually blocked, simply by heading to designated zones in its two main cities, Haikou and Sanya. But as Shanghaiist points out, the plans offered no information on the precise location or size of the proposed zones.
There’s also no information on whether other popular online services — among them Instagram and Snapchat, or indeed Google — would be unblocked as part of the initiative.
If Hainan does loosen the country’s internet restrictions, it won’t only please foreign tourists coming to the island. As part of its expansion efforts, local officials are looking to hire as many as 50,000 workers from overseas in the next two years and to increase the number of foreign students to 3,500, most of whom will be used to accessing internet services unrestricted.
The proposals may surprise some, as they come just over a year after the Chinese government vowed to crack down on unauthorized VPN services that many people use as a firewall workaround.
If the Great Firewall is taken down in parts of Hainan, expect the central government to keep a close eye on online activity there, and for it to quickly step in if it detects what it considers to be troublesome behavior.