When Hu Jintao, the Chinese president, decided to give his first interview to foreign news organisations two years ago, he called in what he saw as a safe pair of hands - Interfax.

While the decision may have had something to do with historic ties and geopolitics, it was also a pat on the back for the Russian news agency, which has expanded aggressively in China over the past five years.

The interview also marked a slight departure from the business model of the company's China news operation, which prefers to steer clear of the country's politics. "Reporting independently [on politics] from China would be possible for two or three weeks and then you would be closed," said Michal Broniatowski, Interfax's deputy president and head of the China business. "We do some reporting on politics through our Beijing correspondent, but we rather want to be where the money is."

Having invested "several million dollars" in an internet-based subscription service and an editorial office in Shanghai with 20 staff, Interfax's China operation is hoping to break even in 2006.

"In the beginning it was very tough, because nobody knew what Interfax was," said Mr Broniatowski, a Polish-born former Reuters journalist who joined Interfax two years ago. "When our journalists call companies now, there is some understanding on the other side."

Interfax was launched in 1989 by a group of former Russian public radio journalists, who started out by sending faxes to foreign media and foreign embassies in Moscow. "What's special about Interfax is that not only did it survive as an independent agency, but it started expanding abroad," said Mr Broniatowski.

The company has since stepped out of the shadow of the 100-year-old Itar-Tass news agency and pitted itself against larger rivals such as Reuters and Bloomberg.

"If you don't have Interfax and you're an oil trader, you're a loser," said Mr Broniatowski. "Reluctantly, both Reuters and Bloomberg are sourcing breaking stories on companies such as Yukos to Interfax."

In China, Interfax is focusing on smaller company news and weekly industry reports in three areas: information technology and telecommunications, energy and metals. It will soon publish regular reports on banking and finance and is planning to strengthen its staff in Beijing and Hong Kong, where the company has its commercial China office.

Mr Broniatowski believes the China business has benefited from its expertise in difficult news markets such as Russia. "You have to know how to operate in a very controlled market," he said. "You have to know how to talk to officials and understand their bureaucratic language."

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