Wu Jichuan, as the top official in charge of the booming telecommunications industry, is an unlikely cabinet minister to be seen under siege. But the Minister of Information Industry has been in the hot seat since the beginning of this year. Back in March, when the National People's Congress was in session, Mr Wu reportedly received tongue-lashings from deputies, including Lu Ping, Beijing's former top official in Hong Kong, about high telephone and Internet charges. In the following month, foreign media singled out the minister as a representative of forces within government opposed to the market liberalisation package Premier Zhu Rongji had offered to the United States in April to secure Beijing's entry into the World Trade Organisation. Last month, Mr Wu caused another stir when he said foreign investment in the Internet in the mainland was illegal - just as Hong Kong and other foreign companies were snapping up Internet-related businesses across the country. Soon afterwards, the minister qualified his remarks, saying foreign investment in Internet service providers, Internet content providers and other value-added services was banned under existing laws drafted in 1993, but the government was reviewing regulations, signalling a possible liberalisation towards the end of this year. Those remarks have left foreign investors surprised and puzzled, and many have postponed additional investments until the government makes up its mind whether to throw the doors wide open or leave them ajar with many restrictions attached. The uncertainties explain in part the volatile ups and downs of Hong Kong penny-stock companies which are trying to ride on the Internet boom on the mainland. One thing is clear: Beijing looks unlikely to impose a blanket ban on foreign investment in the sector, as it needs overseas capital and technology to cope with the explosive growth of the Internet market in the mainland. Mr Wu himself has forecast 20 million Internet users by 2003, up from four million this year. His predictions are considered conservative by other mainland officials, who put the 2003 figure at 60 million. At the Fortune Global Forum last month, the minister said Beijing would open its Internet sector to foreign investment sooner or later, the only question being when the rules would be ready. However, mainland sources said there were reasons to suggest Beijing was not prepared to grant foreign investment unrestricted access to the sector either. That is primarily due to Beijing's concern over the massive flows of unfiltered information available on the Internet. Given its propensity to keep tight the reins over traditional media outlets such as newspapers and TV stations, it is hard to imagine the government would not work its hand to control Internet service providers, particularly content providers. For now, the pace at which Beijing opens its Internet market and strengthens its regulatory grip will have more to do with its negotiations for WTO entry than anything else, sources say. Opening the telecommunications market is reportedly one of the most controversial issues to be resolved by Beijing and Washington during their WTO talks. 'Beijing now has a very effective bargaining chip on the table,' one source said. 'If Beijing and Washington reach an agreement by the end of this year, as is widely hoped, the government would announce rules which recognise the existing ventures and make it easier for further investment. 'If not, what will happen is anybody's guess.' That probably explains Mr Wu's ambiguous message.