BETTER CONNECTION: China is set to lift its “Great Firewall” and allow Internet users within Shanghai’s new Free-trade Zone to access foreign websites and social media services such as Facebook and Twitter, according to a report in the South China Morning Post.

Both Facebook and Twitter have been blocked in China since 2009.

“If [foreigners] can’t get onto Facebook or read The New York Times, they may naturally wonder how special the free-trade zone is compared with the rest of China,” an anonymous source told the Hong Kong paper.

Kevin Der Arslanian, business analyst at China Market Research Group, said he is skeptical about the claims, but any opening up of the Chinese Internet could lead to some interesting possibilities, though the big international social media players would have a significant disadvantage on Chinese turf.

“The Chinese Internet eco-system is very well entrenched and is very unique in terms of its players, habits, consumption and users — all of these things are very different to what we see in the West,” Der Arslanian said.

China’s leading social media players include Weibo, Ren Ren, We Chat and JiePang. They are roughly comparable to Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and Foursquare respectively.

Any change in Internet accessibility might tempt international luxury brands to shift their Chinese social media strategies to rely more heavily on international platforms but Der Arslanian warned that companies should be cautious.

“Facebook and Twitter are great for the West, but they have a lot of work to do if they want to tailor themselves to a Chinese audience and the way Chinese Internet users are accustomed to interacting and consuming online. Even if these platforms become available in China, they have a lot of catching up to do, not only in terms of recognition, but also tailoring to the local market, if they want to challenge dominant homegrown platforms,” he said

Thomas Crampton, Asia-Pacific director of Ogilvy & Mather’s Social@Ogilvy, voiced a similar view.

“In China, the vast majority of the online population are under the age of 40 and they are relating with one another on [domestic] social media, so that’s the best way to reach them,” he said.
Shanghai’s proposed Free-Trade Zone — which is expected to launch on September 29 — will encompass almost 30-square-kilometers in the city’s industrialized east.

Strongly backed by new Premier Li Keqiang, the zone will create a Hong Kong-like area within Mainland China for more liberal trade, subject to less financial and business regulation than the rest of the country.

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