Facebook, Twitter unblocked for Beijing 2015 World Championships in Athletics - but only at sporting venues

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 August, 2015, 4:25pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 August, 2015, 8:16am

Beijing has allowed access to previously blocked websites including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube for the 2015 World Championships in Athletics held in the city this month, but the move is tightly restricted to event grounds and competition venues.

Both Facebook and Twitter have been blocked in China for over six years, with the authorities claiming that activists were using them to organise riots and protests, such as the 2008 unrest in Xinjiang that led to the entire region's internet being cut off for a year.

However, every so often Beijing lowers the so-called Great Firewall, during large-scale sporting and business events.

At the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and the Nanjing Youth Olympics in 2014, social media sites were available only on event grounds.

“There is access to western social media at all competition venues and all official hotels,” said Chris Turner, deputy director for public relations of the International Association of Athletics Federation, which is organising this month's competition.

He clarified that access would be available in and around the main stadium, warm-up, and training venues, and that "accredited" participants would be able to access the websites by using the wireless or cable networks provided during the event.

Local news reports which stated that Beijing would be unblocking the websites over the duration of the sporting event were widely circulated over the weekend, but neglected to specify that the lifting of the ban only applied to competition venues.

Misled users expressed disappointment when they discovered that they still had no access to Facebook.

“It’s already the 22nd [of August], but I’m still unable to access the sites,” said one commenter with the username ‘cloud7887’, on a Chinese-language report.

“This news must be fake.”

A search using the Chinese terms for ‘World Championships in Athletics’ and ‘Facebook’ or ‘Twitter’ on Chinese microblogging site Weibo returned a system message that said results could not be displayed due to China’s law and policies.

These system messages are often displayed when certain search terms are censored on Weibo by the Chinese government.

Despite their services being unavailable inside the Great Firewall, Twitter and Facebook have been undeterred in tapping into the potential of the huge Chinese market.

Facebook set up an office in Hong Kong to sell advertisements to Chinese companies who want to reach out to international users in 2011, while Twitter opened its Hong Kong office in March this year.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who is married to American-Chinese doctor Priscilla Chan and is studying Mandarin, has long been said to be keen to expand into mainland China.

Zuckerberg conducted a 30-minute question and answer session in Mandarin at Beijing’s Tsinghua University in October 2014. He was also appointed to join the advisory board of the university’s economics and management school, which pundits say is a sign that China is softening its stance towards the social network giant.

However, Facebook might still have some way to go before it is unblocked in China.

Lu Wei, a minister at China’s Cyberspace Administration, said last September at the World Economic Forum in Tianjin that Facebook would not be accessible for Chinese users anytime soon.