Gerry Shih San Francisco

Twitter chief executive Dick Costolo will meet Shanghai government officials, academics and students in his first visit to China, signalling Twitter’s interest in cracking a lucrative but thorny market with 600 million internet users.

Twitter, which has been blocked by Chinese censors since 2009, described this week’s trip as a personal tour for Costolo, who plans to spend three days in the business capital. He is not scheduled to visit Beijing.

Costolo is scheduled to meet Shanghai government officials – including representatives of the Shanghai pilot free trade zone, established last year to test market liberalisation measures, such as looser currency conversion and foreign direct investment rules. But officials have denied media reports that internet restrictions and censorship, including the blocking of Twitter, will be loosened there.

Unlike Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, who is a frequent visitor to China and has spoken of his desire to enter China to fulfil his vision of connecting the world, senior Twitter managers have played down the likelihood of seeking a licence to do business there.

But Costolo’s trip is bound to stoke speculation about the company’s ambitions. Major internet firms including Google and Yahoo have been hampered by government intervention. Google pulled out of mainland China in 2010, unwilling to accept what it called censorship of the internet.

Any attempt to enter China with Beijing’s approval would be a delicate proposition for Twitter, which takes pride in its reputation for defending free speech and rebuffing state requests for private user data.

Twitter declined to disclose what Costolo intended to bring up with Chinese officials. “Dick is visiting China because he wants to learn more about Chinese culture and the country’s thriving technology sector,” a Twitter spokesman said.

Costolo is not expected to ask Chinese authorities to lift the Twitter ban. Twitter has rejected the possibility of opening an office any time soon in China, which would subject the company to Chinese law.

He will meet administrators and participate in a discussion with students at Fudan University, the sponsor of his visa.

The Chinese government has clamped down on bloggers and dissident voices on social media sites like Weibo, which closely resembles Twitter. – Reuters