Early in 2011 it was revealed that China was going ahead with an experiment to set up an Internet Special Administrative Region (SAR) similar in concept to the Special Economic Zones (SEZs) of the 1980s that started the process of opening China’s economy to market forces. The first Internet SAR is scheduled for a 10 sq. km area of Chongqing. The idea behind it is to promote cloud computing services that can compete in world markets over the Internet, and to achieve this open access to the Internet is a must.
China’s Internet filtering system, the Great Firewall of China, will not apply. The Internet SAR will be isolated from Mainland networks by a discrete optical fibre connection direct to an international gateway. Foreign as well as local companies will be encouraged to set up within the SAR and will be allowed 100% ownership. Incubation schemes will promote the development of local start-ups. Local employees will require special passes to enter the zone. Plans for the zone, according to the report in the Southern Weekend newspaper, (RightSite.asia, 2011). include the installation of around 30,000 servers. It is understood that Chongqing may be the first of several such zones across China.
*Note: And even North Korea may follow suit. According to a report 11 July 2011 (Radio Free Europe Documents and Publications) in an interview with China Central TV an official confirmed plans to allow Internet and mobile phone access to visitors to the Mount Kumgang tourism zone.
The big question is whether the Internet SARs will eventually go the same way as the SEZs; will they become stepping stones to wider and freer access to the Internet across the whole of China in years to come? Logic says they will, politics says not for a long time to come. And yet many Internet-savvy Chinese already know their way around the Great Firewall. Using proxy anonymiser software like Freegate, citizens can by-pass the firewall, if only for a day or so before the guardians of the Wall block the hole. A day or two later another hole appears, and so the game goes on.
Time, they say, like oxygen and water corrodes everything; even an electronic wall. For many Chinese, it would be a great Chinese New Year present to be able to enjoy unrestricted and hassle free access to the Internet. In the meantime, the cat-and-mouse games continue, hopefully in a more festive mood.