New Internationalist

The Dragon and the Phoenix

Issue 333

Are global media corporations bringing free press along with free markets into China? Yun Ding examines the intimate embrace between the Chinese state and Murdoch’s Phoenix TV.

‘Kowtow’ is a Chinese word derived from the Mandarin ‘kou’ – to knock – and ‘tou’ – the head. Rupert Murdoch learned to Chinese kowtow when President Jiang Zemin received him for an audience in December 1998. Jiang expressed his ‘appreciation for the efforts made by Mr Murdoch’s media empire to present China objectively and to co-operate with the Chinese press’, while Mr Murdoch voiced his admiration for ‘China’s tremendous achievements in every respect over the last two decades’.

Murdoch’s audience with Jiang proved to be a major breakthrough in his difficult navigation through the byzantine pathways of China. In April 1999, as a mark of the high favour that the Communist Party bestowed on the tycoon, the formal opening of News Corp’s office in Beijing was broadcast as one of the top domestic news stories. Murdoch had successfully positioned his News Corp as the first foreign media company in the world’s most heavily guarded territory: the Chinese media industry.

In 1993 he had sowed fear in Zhongnanhai – the headquarters of the Chinese Communist Party – when he prophesied that satellite TV was ‘an unambiguous threat to totalitarian regimes everywhere’. In retrospect, he had underestimated the importance of fostering guanxi (connections) with Beijing. Surprising, given Murdoch’s foxy dealings with British Tories and US Republicans. It did not take him long, however, to get his fox-trotting in tune with the Beijing band. After all, as Murdoch has since pointed out: ‘The truth is that authoritarian countries can work.’

In 1994 he removed BBC news from his Asia STAR TV channel, and News Corp’s publishing house HarperCollins printed a glowing biography of the then-Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping, by his daughter, Mao Mao. In 1998 it dropped a more critical book by former Governor of Hong Kong Chris Patten whilst Murdoch stepped up his cultivation of senior Party figures. His UK paper The Times hosted the editor of the People’s Daily Shao Huaze – appointed as part of the 1989 post-Tiananmen crackdown – on a tour of Britain to mark a joint venture between the paper, China’s equivalent of Pravda, and News Corp. Former East Asia editor of The Times Jonathan Mirsky told a Freedom Forum gathering in January 1998 that the paper ‘has simply decided, because of Murdoch’s interests, not to cover China in a serious way’.

Liberalization not liberation

As Liu Changle, former Chinese army officer and now chair of Rupert Murdoch’s Phoenix TV channel in China, says: ‘You have to strike a balance between freedom of the press and the market.’ And according to Eric Kit-wai Ma of the Chinese University in Hong Kong: ‘There is no hint that the Chinese state is peacefully evolving into a liberal state because of the “liberating force” of the market.’ Local media are conglomerating in preparation for the country’s entry into the World Trade Organization – for the Chinese media it is more a case of liberalization than liberation.

Murdoch has not been alone in finding a chum in Jiang. When the world’s media tycoons met in Shanghai for the ‘Fortune Global Forum’ in September 1999, Time Warner CEO Gerald Levin fawningly addressed his ‘good friend’ President Jiang Zemin, as someone with whom he had ‘been privileged to spend considerable time… an experience made memorable by his sincerity, openness and thoughtful insights’.

Many of the tycoons went on to Beijing to rub shoulders with leading Communist Party figures and were treated to a fly-past by Chinese fighter pilots and a huge display of the mainland’s military hardware as part of celebrations for 50 years of Communist rule. Sumner Redstone of Viacom, Howard Stringer of Sony and Thomas Middelhof of Bertelsmann all refused to answer whether they thought it right for President Jiang to imprison his critics.

After all, the lure of the Chinese market – an entertainment industry’s dream of 1.3 billion potential customers – is simply too strong to resist.

Phoenix rising

Until recently Murdoch’s pan-Asian satellite service STAR TV which beams into China avoided providing news at all, despite being owned by one of the world’s most powerful news moguls. This relaxed a little in 1999 when it introduced a carefully scripted daily five-minute bulletin AsiaNews Update. But the timid five-minute show for the whole of Asia is woefully inadequate for an audience hungry for news and probing analysis.

Meanwhile Murdoch’s Phoenix TV is virtually the only non-governmental station in China, reaching 45 million households. Known as the ‘Chinese channel’, Phoenix beams a mixture of light entertainment – game shows, music, dramas and movies to mainland China. It is very popular as it is livelier and better presented than Chinese state TV. However, it sticks to the correct political line so closely that Premier Zhu Rongji saw fit to announce at a press conference how often he watched Phoenix.

On 1 January 2001 Phoenix launched a 24-hour newscast to mainland China. Coyly avoiding the description xinwen, Chinese for ‘news’, it provides instead zixun or financial ‘info-news’. Yang Lan, a former programme host at Phoenix says: ‘The political risk is higher with news than with any other kind of programming.’ Phoenix executives emphasize business coverage, a tactic to avoid sensitive areas which would normally be covered by a more general news channel, and journalists, editors and producers are kept on a tight rein.

The crowd at Phoenix is largely made up of former employees of the China Central Television. Its claim to offer in-depth news analysis from a different perspective on China is belied by its links with state media outlets. The show Good Morning China for example reports editorials from the major state newspapers.

Phoenix executives cringe when asked about the role of their connections in launching the channel – and in keeping it on the air. Wu Xiaoyong, Phoenix’s director of business development, is the son of the former Chinese foreign minister and vice premier Wu Xueqian. According to Wu the key to success is to ensure that programmes do not challenge the Beijing leadership’s view of the world. Similarly, Phoenix’s chief executive Liu Changle says: ‘We are extremely careful about what content we bring into mainland China. For something that is very, very sensitive, we may not say anything. But at least we will not lie.’ For example, Phoenix has barely mentioned Falun Gong, the meditation sect that has been outlawed in China but whose members regularly protest in Tiananmen Square. Protests in China’s special economic zones by laid-off workers have also been met with media silence. Lui Changle admits: ‘The biggest challenge will be how to balance between appealing to the general public without offending government authorities.’

‘If a TV programme covers forbidden ground, we will have no choice but to delete it from our broadcast’

Which is not so much of a challenge for Rupert Murdoch, who summed up his simple formula in a speech at the Entertainment and Media in Asia Conference in Los Angeles. This time he did not speculate on the wonder of global communications leading to the overthrow of authoritarian rule. He told a packed house in his Fox Studios, the venue of the conference: ‘If a TV program covers forbidden ground, we will have no choice but to delete it from our broadcast.’

‘When the dragon flies, the phoenix dances’ – so goes a Chinese idiom. The two fabulous creatures make a charming pair in the spooky ballroom of media globalization.

Yn Ding was the former Culture Editor at the China Radio International (Beijing). He was the 1998-99 Sing Tao Journalism Fellow at the University of Toronto, Canada. Currently he is a research assistant with the China Times Centre for Media and Social Studies at the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities. ( youngding@yahoo.com )

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