ANY hopes that international telecommunications companies might soon obtain direct access to China's burgeoning market were ruled out yesterday by Wu Jichuan, Minister of Posts and Telecommunications. He said that while the issue was of great concern to foreigners who wished to obtain licences to operate telecommunications networks, it was premature to suggest any opening up in China. He could make no guesses as to when there might be a relaxation, given that there was no precedent in the world for foreigners to be allowed to fully operate a communications network. He stressed the role of foreign capital in building up China's telecommunications network, and said that about $6 billion had been committed so far. Now the government planned to explore new ways of using foreign capital, which could offer foreigners even greater participation - but under strict controls. 'That is, allowing foreigners to join in the investment in telecommunications projects and get their returns according to the mode agreed, under the precondition that they will not hold equities or involve themselves in the operations and management of the telecommunications business,' he said. The attraction for foreign network companies was clear. Mr Wu said the overall plan was to develop a telecommunications network covering the entire country by the year 2,000, and to take it to the forefront of world ranks 10 years later. This would require an extensive optical-fire network, supplemented by microwave and satellite links that would more than treble the number of long distance circuits. The target for telephone penetration, at present one of the lowest in the world, was to have 30 per cent to 40 per cent of homes in cities fitted with a telephone, and with every village in the rural areas having at least one line. It was intended that China's mobile phone population would reach a total of 35 million. Coupled to this expansion would be a push on networking information systems, and the development of broad band telecommunications networks, he said. 'By 2010, the total capacity of the national telephone network will reach about 400 million lines and the telephone penetration rate will be about 25 per cent,' he forecast. But while foreigners might be denied access to running the networks, he repeated earlier assurances that they would be allowed to help build them. 'China is one of the earliest countries to open up its telecommunications equipment market, and is one of the countries whose market access is the highest,' he said.