China’s authorities ban their own people from accessing major global social media sites including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others. However, when it comes to self-promotion they are increasingly keen users themselves.
Xinhua news agency, the Chinese 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.
However, 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 today, 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, said that increasing official use of such sites was “inevitable.”
However, he declined to say how the winner was expected to post to them from within China.
Chinese authorities maintain a tight grip on expression — both online and offline — fearful of any dissent that could spiral into a challenge to one-party rule.
Some Chinese Internet users and businesses use 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,” Facebook vice president of corporate development Vaughan Smith 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 Web site, 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 Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg drew international headlines in September last year when she met the head of the Chinese State Council Information Office, which oversees propaganda efforts.
Google also seeks advertisers in China and has three offices there, 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 Twitter chief executive Dick Costolo met Shanghai government officials during his first China visit, in March.
Facebook representatives declined interview requests about the company’s China business.
Duncan Clark, chairman of Beijing-based tech consultancy BDA, said Chinese local authorities had huge budgets and their tourism advertisements were probably lucrative for the multibillion-dollar firm.