China's state-run media on Friday appeared to rule out any limited provision of Internet freedom in a Shanghai free trade zone which opens on Sunday, apparently scotching earlier reports that the country's Great Firewall of Internet censorship wouldn't apply there or in a similar zone planned for Shenzhen.
"A lot of people have been talking about a 'special Internet zone,' or even 'cultural concessions,'" said a commentary posted in the overseas, online edition of the ruling Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece, the People's Daily.
"These reports were officially denied by official, authoritative media," it said, in a reference to earlier articles in the same paper that were later deleted.
Hong Kong's South China Morning Post reported this week that denizens of the Shanghai free trade zone would have unfettered access to overseas websites which are currently blocked by Beijing's Internet censors.
Internet users inside the zone would be able to access Facebook, Twitter, and other sites including the New York Times, which has been blocked in China since last year, the paper said.
Meanwhile, Reuters quoted an official in charge of planning the U.S.$45 billion Qianhai financial zone in the southern city of Shenzhen as saying that Internet access would be on a par with Hong Kong, which doesn't censor what netizens can see.
"In Qianhai, we will be able to see what they can see in Hong Kong," Reuters quoted Wang Jinxia, director of the research and innovation center of the Qianhai Authority, as saying.
"We will strive for an exclusive international communication channel in which information won't be filtered," he said, adding that Facebook and Twitter would be available.
A formal policy blueprint announced by China's state council, or cabinet, for Qianhai in June that said "a dedicated channel for international communication in Qianhai shall be supported to satisfy the needs for international communications of the enterprises in the zone," Reuters said.
'Lack of judgment'
But the People's Daily article said the reports that the Great Firewall wouldn't operate in certain zones showed a "lack of judgement and blind repetition on the part of some people and organizations."
The paper, which appeared to be reacting in particular to the use of the sensitive concept of "concessions," which recall a humiliating era in Chinese history where foreign powers controlled Chinese ports, said online censorship was here to stay.
It said a weakening of the comprehensive system of blocks, filters, and human censorship known as the Great Firewall would likely only occur when China's power in the world matched that of the U.S.
"The management of the Internet is crucial if China's 1.3 billion people are to live in peace and not [have their country] fall apart like the Soviet Union, or end up in a similar state to Syria," the article said.
War on rumor
Professor Xia Ming, political science lecturer at the College of Staten Island in New York, said the notion of limited Internet freedom was "comical."
Xia said the Chinese government is currently in the middle of a nationwide crackdown on online "rumors" which has encompassed even its own tightly regulated Internet service providers.
"Allowing free Internet access in the free-trade zone wouldn't have much of a real impact on China," Xia said. "It would be little, too late."
War on rumor
Amid a crackdown on China's usually outspoken social media sites, the Supreme People’s Court and state prosecution service issued guidelines on Sept. 9 warning that "rumor-mongering" is a crime punishable under law.
Anyone posting information online deemed by the authorities to be "spreading rumors" or "defaming" another person could be punished for a serious offense if the post is subsequently viewed at least 5,000 times or re-posted at least 500 times.
Earlier this month, 16-year-old Gansu tweeter Yang Hui was held under administrative detention for seven days and expelled from his high-school after using Sina Weibo to cast doubts on official accounts of a local man's death.
According to Beijing-based political analyst Chen Yongmiao, any symbolic freedoms that might be extended to Internet users in a future free-trade zone would be fairly meaningless anyway.
"It's as if ... I stood at your door holding a gun and allowed you to speak freely inside the house," Chen said.
"You would be able to see me standing there holding the gun the whole time, so it would be impossible not to feel frightened."
"Under such circumstances, how meaningful would that freedom be?"
Shanghai resident Yu Zhonghuan said that, even if China did allow a wider range of overseas websites past its Great Firewall, it could easily revoke such access at any time.
"China has promised a lot of things ... since 1949, but how many of those promises has it kept?" Yu said.
"The Chinese government can always turn hostile after you thought things were settled."
Economic experts said the Shanghai free-trade zone is more of an experiment in loosening the stranglehold of state monopolies and currency controls on economic activity than an exercise in greater freedom of expression.
"The establishment of the free trade zone will help to break up interference by government departments in the economy," Li Xiaobing, director of the Western Pacific Institute at the University of Central Oklahoma, said in an interview this week.
"[It] will also help smaller banks to develop, and get around all the red tape and bureaucracy."
The Shanghai free trade zone has top-level approval from China's cabinet, the State Council, and will remove controls on China's yuan currency in a bid to compete with global financial centers like Hong Kong, London, and New York, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported on Friday.
On condition of "effective oversight," Chinese banks in the zone will be allowed to provide services to depositors who are residents in other countries, the agency said.
"Eligible" foreign-funded financial institutions will be able to set up banks or joint-venture banks, it said.
Reported by Wen Jian and Gao Shan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.