Beijing could approve one to two foreign publishing joint ventures this year even though the sector remains largely off-limits to overseas players, according to a Beijing official. Many foreign firms, such as France's biggest publisher Hachette, have been applying to set up joint ventures with mainland partners to distribute their branded titles. But only one or two could be approved as exceptional cases, said Wang Huapeng, director-general of the Department for Foreign Exchange and Co-operation at the General Administration of Press and Publication. 'I want to stress that we have not pledged to open the sector under our World Trade Organisation commitments,' Mr Wang said yesterday after a book fair seminar. Only a handful of foreign players are allowed to sell magazines in the mainland through joint ventures with domestic companies. The most prominent example is Computerworld, a publication of United States-based publishing giant IDG, which is reported to have earned US$250 million from investments of US$150 million in China between 2000 and last year. Two of China's most popular fashion magazines are also joint ventures with US and French firms - Shi Shang and Elle - which sell 385,000 and 300,000 copies a month, respectively. But most private and foreign investment is banned in the highly guarded print media sector. Almost all mainland publishers are government-owned. Mr Wang said the only rules that had been relaxed following China's admission to the WTO were those covering sales and distribution and printing. Critics said some foreign companies and private funds had been able to get around the rules by investing in the sales and advertising arms of mainland publications, while vowing to keep their hands off the editorial departments. Others have licensed their works to Chinese publishers. Yu Min, standing vice-president of the Chinese Institute of Publishing Science, said the publication industry generated turnover of 5.33 billion yuan (about HK$4.99 billion) last year. Of this, book sales accounted for 71 per cent, or 3.82 billion yuan. Mr Yu said the fragmented sector had been consolidated into about 60 large publishing groups to strengthen their operations and make them more competitive. He cited as an example the newly formed industry flagship China Publication Group, which reported sales of 2.5 billion yuan on assets of five billion yuan last year. The oldest conglomerate, Shandong Publication Group, posted net profit of 400 million yuan on sales of six billion yuan in 2000. However, Mr Yu said small but innovative players should be encouraged. He said the big mainland publication groups were not strong enough to compete with foreign players while small companies were not flexible enough to move with the fast-changing market economy.