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How Chinese officials 'like' banned Facebook

BEIJING--China's Communist authorities ban their own people from accessing major global social media sites including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and more. But when it comes to self-promotion they are increasingly keen users themselves.

The official news agency Xinhua, the Communist Party's official mouthpiece the People's Daily, and state broadcaster CCTV all have Twitter accounts, as do a host of city and provincial authorities.

When the city of Hangzhou, renowned for its lakes and canals, looked to raise its international profile it turned to Facebook, the world's most-popular social network.

China's Internet users, who now number 618 million, have been blocked from using it since 2009.

But the city's “Modern Marco Polo” competition — akin to Australia's “best job in the world” contests — involves no fewer than six Facebook apps.

The winner, to be announced Tuesday, will receive 40,000 euros (US$55,000) and a two-week trip to Hangzhou, in exchange for promoting the city on Facebook and Twitter for a year.

Michael Cavanaugh, a consultant for British-based PR Agency One, which has been promoting the contest, told AFP increasing official use of such sites was “inevitable.” But he declined to say how the winner was expected to post to them from within China.

Great Firewall of China

China's Communist authorities maintain a tight grip on expression — both on- and off-line — fearful of any dissent that could spiral into a challenge to one-party rule.

Some Chinese Internet users and businesses use VPNs, or virtual private networks, to bypass the vast censorship apparatus known as the Great Firewall, and state-run media often use foreign bureaus to accomplish the same goal.

Hangzhou itself used a digital agency in Hong Kong, where Facebook is not blocked, to administer its contest — an increasing trend by cities and provinces within China's borders.

The social media giant is actively seeking business in the country.

“We want to help tourism agencies in China tell the rest of the world about the fabulous things in China that are really not that well-understood,” Vaughan Smith, Facebook's vice president of corporate development, told a Beijing audience last month.

Facebook is reportedly in talks to open a sales office in the Chinese capital, and in recent weeks the company has quietly posted Beijing-based job openings on its website, including one for a client solutions manager to “focus on planning, implementing, and optimizing advertising campaign spending for the world's top-tier advertisers.”

Its executives are making increasingly frequent appearances at high-profile events in China, and the company's chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg drew international headlines last September when she met the head of China's State Council Information Office, which oversees propaganda efforts.

Google also seeks advertisers in China and has three offices on the mainland, but pulled out its servers in 2010 in a row about censorship.

Twitter, which is a prominent advocate for free speech online, has shown few signs of interest in setting up in China, although the company's CEO Dick Costolo met Shanghai government officials during his first China visit in March.

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A photo taken on May 16, 2012 shows a computer screen displaying the logo of social networking site Facebook reflected in a window before the Beijing skyline. (AFP)

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