As China gears up for the official launch of its Shanghai Free Trade Zone on Sunday, the country's State Council has excellent news for the gaming industry: the 13-year ban on the sale of video game consoles is coming to a close. Given the ruckus over supposed plans to unblock social media in the zone—which turned out to be false—you're wise to be a bit skeptical. But this seems far more credible.
Here's a quick recap. Earlier this week, the South China Morning post reported that Facebook and Twitter, which have been blocked in China since 2009, would be accessible in the Free Trade Zone, along with The New York Times and other media outlets banned in the rest of the country. The tip came from anonymous government sources:
“In order to welcome foreign companies to invest and to let foreigners live and work happily in the free-trade zone, we must think about how we can make them feel like at home,” one source told the South China Morning Post.
That's a bold move for a Communist Party that has in recent years made internet censorship the hallmark of its crackdown on dissenting viewpoints and the technologies that enable them. So it wasn't too surprising to learn it was a fiction; in subsequent reports, authorities have denied any such change at all in China's Great Firewall.
The video game news seems less suspect. This report isn't based on hearsay or unnamed sources—it's coming straight from the State Council, the cabinet that controls major policy decisions, which has just released a document (link in Chinese) containing rules for the free trade zone. Here are the qualifiers, via The Hollywood Reporter:
The statement released by the State Council, the body responsible for top-level policy decisions in the country, says foreign companies will be allowed to sell video games and consoles across China, so long as they set up joint venture operations within the new Shanghai FTZ. The games and devices will first be subject to approval by the Ministry of Culture, however.
Plus, the ban was never fully effective in the first place; consumers have often been able to find major consoles at retailers skirting the rule. By contrast, China's internet censorship has been relatively strict—and motivated by a realer threat for the government: the role of social media in political protest, as demonstrated by riots in 2009.
It looks like China has more to gain from relaxing its video game ban if it hopes to turn Shanghai into a genuinely competitive global financial hub. But if China does decide to backtrack, Microsoft would take a hit—the company apparently got the news early and has already announced plans to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in a venture with BesTV New Media, a Chinese Internet TV company.