Reuters International

Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks during his meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, March 31, 2016. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

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BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese President Xi Jinping on Tuesday called on Communist Party officials to use the internet to better understand citizens and address their grievances, said state media, as an economic downturn sparks popular frustration.

The party should be patient with internet users, resolve difficulties and correct erroneous opinions in a timely manner, said Xi, according to Xinhua.

The government is embracing the internet as a key space in which to shape public discourse, an increasingly pressing issue as discontent spreads amongst the growing number of people hit by the economic slowdown.

More broadly, the ruling Communist Party sees technology as crucial for bolstering its economy, which grew at an annual rate of 6.7 percent in the first quarter, its weakest pace since early 2009.

In an effort to shape public opinion online, Xi's government has implemented an unprecedented tightening of internet controls and sought to codify the policy within the law, a campaign that critics say ignores human rights and is a burden for business.

Officials say Internet restrictions are needed to ensure security in the face of rising threats such as terrorism and foreign ideology that could destabilise China.

Premier Li Keqiang, propaganda chief Liu Yunshan, central bank governor Zhou Xiaochuan, Alibaba Group Holding Ltd Executive Chairman Jack Ma and Huawei Technologies Co Ltd [HWT.UL] Chairman Ren Zhengfei attended the meeting, Xinhua said.

Also taking part were top officials from the People's Liberation Army and state security apparatus, according to the news agency.

Internet regulators should welcome and learn from constructive criticism online, whether it's targeted at the party and government or individual leaders, Xi said, topics which are usually considered off-limits by China's censors.

But, if cyberspace is in turmoil it will not be in the people's interest, Xinhua cited Xi as saying.

Xi's comments echo his words in December, when he said people should be able to speak freely online. But Chinese authorities have continued to censor views that differ from the party's, in some cases detaining people for comments they make online.

(Reporting by Paul Carsten; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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