Uncensored Net for Macau uni's new campus

Uncensored Net for Macau uni's new campus

A tiny crack in the "Great Firewall of China" will allow some forbidden bytes to filter through, at the first university on mainland Chinese soil with a campus-wide uncensored Internet connection.

Students and researchers from the University of Macau, which is relocating to Hengqin Island in Guangdong next January, will have unfettered Internet access.

This includes sites banned in China such as Facebook, YouTube and Bloomberg news.

But hopes that the zone will also allow its companies and investors unrestricted Internet access were dashed when a key official told The Straits Times media reports of such plans were inaccurate.

Mr Ye Zhan, deputy director of Hengqin's administrative committee, was quoted by local media last week as saying that it is waiting for approval from central authorities to lift Internet censorship curbs for overseas investors.

"We are quite confident this policy can be enacted in designated districts on the island," he reportedly said. The idea is that it will simulate the open business environment in Hong Kong and Macau for foreign companies.

When contacted on Monday, however, Mr Ye said that there are no such plans in the pipeline, adding that the reports were based on "unofficial talk".

On whether this will deter prospective investors, he demurred, saying that some 70 companies from Hong Kong and Macau have signed up to invest in Hengqin.

The 106 sq km Hengqin Island, Qianhai in Shenzhen and Nansha in Guangzhou are touted as a triangle of special economic zones to help propel the Pearl River Delta up the value chain from merely manufacturing.

Hengqin, which China is spending 175 billion yuan (S$36 billion) to develop, is focusing on tourism, finance, and research and development.

It also wants to woo Hong Kong- and Macau-based finance companies to relocate their back offices to its business district. The goal is to reach a gross domestic product per capita of 120,000 yuan in 10 to 15 years.

While these companies will not have open Internet access, the students and faculty at the new University of Macau campus - which was handed over to the Macau government on July 20 under a 40-year lease - would.

The school has 8,500 students now - a quarter of whom are mainlanders, with the rest being mainly Macanese.

With its move to the new campus 20 times the size of its old one, its goal is to become "one of Asia's top universities", says Dr Ricardo Siu, a business professor from the university involved in the relocation process.

Key to this would be to woo top-calibre students in the region, and one lure is the prospect of openly free Internet access.

A campus-wide Wi-Fi system - which visitors can also use - is being set up. "This is an academic campus and so staff expect free access to information," says Dr Siu. "A firewall will hinder us in accessing academic papers or websites."

Already, youngsters are eyeing a place at the university, says Mr Yang Zhipeng, director of Hengqin No. 1 Junior High. "More and more students in Zhuhai now are attracted to apply to it. They feel it is more international."

China has previously lifted Internet curbs on an ad-hoc basis such as during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. But those hoping that the Macau university is a harbinger of greater liberalisation to come will likely be disappointed.

Other foreign universities on mainland soil, like the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology campus in Nansha, continue to operate under prevailing restrictions, says its dean Lionel Ni.

Says Professor Huang Weiping, director of the Institute for Contemporary Chinese Politics in Shenzhen University: "This is a gift for Macau under the 'one country, two systems' framework.

But the Internet has too much of an impact on Chinese society.

China will still want to censor online content for the sake of political stability."

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