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Breaching the Great Wall

Free information flow is a an integral part of the fabric of democracy, something that is currently unavailable in China. In an assessment of the Chinese media, the BBC wrote on its website,

“China’s media are tightly controlled by the country’s leadership. Beijing also attempts to restrict access to foreign news providers by jamming shortwave radio broadcasts, including those of the BBC, and blocking access to web sites.

“The Chinese press report on corruption and inefficiency among officials, but the media as a whole refrain from criticizing the Chinese Communist Party’s monopoly on power.”

In recent years, a number of private organizations have begun to pose a challenge to the Chinese government’s censorship. These organizations, often non-profit and staffed with volunteers, operate on a minimal budget. Surprisingly, they have managed to achieve significant results.

Those who live in China and try to break through the censorship often face dire consequences. In 2004, sixty-three Chinese Internet users were arrested for downloading and uploading documents related to human rights issues, containing criticism of government policies, or advocating independent social or political parties. Seventeen of them were sentenced to prison, the longest term being 17 years. Some of these people include Huang Qi, who won an award from media rights group Reporters Without Borders, Yang Zhili, and Huang Jinqio. Reporters Without Borders reported in 2004 that China was the world’s “biggest prison for cyber-dissidents.”

Meanwhile, a handful of media based outside of China have been striving to bring freedom of information to the Chinese people. The coverage of the SARS outbreak in 2003 demonstrated the low degree of transparency in the Chinese media. Similar events have prompted more and more Chinese people to seek out reliable, uncensored news sources, providing a golden opportunity for overseas TV stations, newspapers, and radio stations to penetrate the information Great Wall and reach the Chinese people.

In this issue we will profile two of the fastest growing independent Chinese-language media outlets: New Tang Dynasty Television and The Epoch Times newspaper. Both run by volunteers, they represent a new force of increasing influence that is subtly shifting the political and cultural balance in China.

New Tang Dynasty Television (NTDTV)

The U.S. presidential debate was held on September 30, 2004. While Americans watched the debate on TV, millions of Mainland Chinese watched the debate, as well. For the Chinese, however, it was their first-ever opportunity to see an unfiltered presidential debate from a democratic nation on a Chinese-language television station. The live coverage of the debate, with simultaneous translation, was made available by New Tang Dynasty Television (NTDTV), a non-profit Chinese-language TV station based in North America. Elections in China are vehicles for power transfer within the Party and do not allow competition or public debate over political issues, so the broadcast was eye opening for much of the Chinese audience. As one viewer wrote in his feedback, “This was the first time we have been able to witness democracy in action in the United States.”

Bringing uncensored news from around the world to the Chinese-speaking audience is what Zhong Pang, News Department Chief at NTDTV, set out to do. Mr. Pang longed for a broadcasting environment without government censorship before joining NTDTV. Mr. Pang started out over 20 years ago in the Chinese Central Radio Broadcasting (CCRB) in Beijing and later in Phoenix Satellite TV as the news department chief in Hong Kong, before joining NTDTV in October 2002. He still remembers those days in Beijing, talking with colleagues in hushed tones about their journalistic dream: Someday they would produce and broadcast uncensored, real news.

“As journalists we had our own conscience and ambitions, but our directive was to promote the Party’s agenda above all else. Every piece of news had to follow the Party line. If a piece was broadcasted but later was determined to have stepped beyond the boundaries, the producer would be criticized and people involved had to write self-criticisms,” Pang explained.

Pang enjoyed a little freer environment when he moved to Hong Kong to head up the news department at Phoenix Satellite Television. However, he could not escape from the persecution of Falun Gong that had been extended from the mainland to Hong Kong. Pang, whose daughter regained her health after practicing Falun Gong and who himself also practices the meditation exercises, was removed from Phoenix TV around the time when ex-President Jiang Zemin visited Hong Kong in July 2002. Pang managed to make it to the United States and was snapped up by NTDTV.

“When I first visited NTDTV, it was newly formed and faced a lot of challenges. Many of the staff didn’t have much experience in broadcasting, but they were enthusiastic and determined. I was really moved by their hard work and determination, and saw a great opportunity to put my experience to use.” Pang is still excited when recalling his first visit to NTDTV. “I think I made the right choice in joining NTDTV. I can report news as a real journalist, which I could not do when I was in China. We have built up a global team of reporters and we are still growing. We were the first Chinese TV network in the world to report the SARS outbreak, a week before the Chinese state media admitted the fact.”

From his experiences working in China, Pang is very sensitive to the Communist Party’s propaganda, and he works to provide Chinese people a more objective view of the world. He gave us an example, “During the 2003 Iraq war, NTDTV was the only Chinese-language TV network that gave a true picture of the war. Even though the Chinese official Xinhua News Agency sent reporters to Iraq, their reports only depicted Americans as invaders doing bad things to the Iraqis. The Party used the war to instigate anti-American sentiment among the public and thus divert people’s attention from domestic problems.”

NTDTV was founded by a group of Chinese Americans living in North America. Zhong Lee, the President of NTDTV, is a typical Chinese-American who came to the U.S. to attend college and graduate school. That was a long time ago, and Lee now works on Wall Street and has a typical American family in New Jersey.

“After living in the West for a long time, we are used to the free media. There are many alternative news sources here. The government cannot control the media, and its policy is subject to the scrutiny of journalists. We in America simply take this for granted, but it is not the case in China.” Lee explains his reasons for establishing the new television network. “In most cases, CCTV (China Central Television) is the only choice for Chinese people to get news. Without a free media, the Chinese people are heavily influenced by the distorted reporting.”

Lee gave two examples to illustrate his point: “After the September 11 terrorist attack, surveys found that 80% of the Chinese people in Mainland China thought the United States got what it deserved. This may sound hard to believe for many Americans, but it’s a culmination of the longstanding Chinese media policy to stir up anti-American sentiments. Another example is that many Chinese who come to visit the United States are shocked to see people freely practicing Falun Gong in the park, like myself. They were told that ‘all responsible governments around the world have banned Falun Gong.'”

“The effects of this type of Chinese-language media, which is fundamentally a political tool of the government, really alarmed me. A group of us believed that it was time to set up a new TV network, one that is different from CCTV, one that will have the best interest of the Chinese people at heart,” Lee told us.

Joe Zhao, a professor at the University of Minnesota, was among the people who supported Lee’s idea. Similar to Lee, Dr. Zhao also came to the United States as a student, obtaining his doctorate from Stanford University in 1989. Over the years, he developed an appreciation for the importance of cross-cultural understanding between the East and West. In particular, he was interested in introducing Western culture and ideals to the people in China, such as the fundamental values of democracy and respect for human rights. Zhao, who currently serves on NTDTV’s Board of Directors, said of his involvement, “I was excited to learn about the formation of NTDTV in 2002. NTDTV is creating a unique window for people in China to understand the world, and a window for people outside China to understand Chinese culture and know what is happening in contemporary China.”

He continued, “NTDTV is filling a gap by penetrating the information Great Wall. For decades, many overseas TV stations, including CNN, have been trying to broadcast programs to China. However, their signals have often been interfered with or blocked, and the result is that Mainland China gets very little objective information about the rest of the world. NTDTV has successfully transmitted its programs into China through satellites and webcasts, and the programming has so far been well-received.”

What Zhong Lee and his colleagues have managed to achieve in three years is indeed remarkable. NTDTV has offered 24/7 programming covering Asia, Europe, and Australia since July 2003 through its satellite network. Its global news team provides 20-minute news programs covering international events, with its focus on North America and Asia. NTDTV’s website also offers a variety of programs for those who do not have access to its telecasts. Zhong Lee certainly is proud of what NTDTV provides: “Our model is based on that of PBS, and we pay special attention to the objectivity of our news reporting. Our other programs are primarily culture and education oriented, with an emphasis on Chinese culture, health, and entertainment. We also have programs that teach Chinese people English, as well as programs that introduce Western democracy and its social system. We have started an English-language news program focusing on China and Asia, and we are developing more English programs to introduce Chinese culture,”

Detractors of the station paint a different picture, however. The Chinese government has openly claimed that NTDTV is a front for Falun Gong propaganda, and that its aim is to undermine the Chinese government. When posed with the question, Joe Zhao took a cool attitude towards the Chinese government’s charges: “People believe the Chinese government only when they have not seen our programs. Anybody who has seen our content, the guests for our talk shows and interviews, etc, will know that NTDTV is not a front for anybody.”

Dr. Zhao goes on to explain, “CCTV has been on the attack against Falun Gong and has not allowed them a forum since beginning to persecute them in 1999. The Chinese government has tried very hard to silence Falun Gong and many other groups they have deemed illegal. So far, NTDTV is the only Chinese-language television station that has paid a lot of attention to the persecution of Falun Gong and other suppressed religious groups and people. It’s not a surprise that the Chinese government wants to disrupt NTDTV in any way that it can.”

The attacks from the Chinese government have actually drawn some international attention to NTDTV. On January 15, Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin took off with the Canadian Trade and Media Group for Phuket, Thailand, on the start of his eight-day visit to Asia. On January 13, the Chinese Embassy in Canada abruptly cancelled the visas of two NTDTV reporters who were scheduled to accompany Mr. Martin to Asia. The visas were initially issued on January 12 to reporters David Ren and Danielle Zhu. This caused an uproar in Canada, and Mr. Paul Martin also expressed his dissatisfaction: “This is a very serious issue. We believe fully in freedom of the press. We have asked the Chinese Embassy here in Ottawa for an explanation. Our ambassador in China has asked for an explanation from the government.”

The Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC) reported the incident on both TV and radio with a report entitled “Human Rights Overshadow Martin’s China Trip.” In an interview with a CBC reporter, Joe Wang, the President of NTDTV Canada, said, “I feel as a Canadian journalist that my right to freedom of press has been violated. The Chinese Embassy in Canada didn’t give any explanation, and all of the other reporters who were scheduled to accompany Martin’s trip obtained visas.”

Wang said, “We don’t shy away from reporting sensitive issues … we reported extensively on the SARS crisis and the persecution of Roman Catholics and [followers] of Falun Gong inside China¡­ NTDTV’s signal can be received uncensored inside China, and the station has a responsibility to report the issues that matter to the Chinese people.”

Similar high-profile incidents of the Chinese government trying to block NTDTV have occurred in other places, as well. During Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to the United States in December 2003, NTDTV reporters were denied access to a White House press event in Washington DC. In March 2003 during the 59th U.N. Summit on Human Rights, the United Nations first refused to issue NTDTV media passes under pressure from the Chinese government, but later changed its mind.

Zhong Lee chooses to stand firm, “We know that in China there’s only one voice the one from the government. We offer a different voice. The reason they fear us is because they fear the truth. They attack us because we are independent, and our news is different from theirs, which is unique in the Chinese marketplace. It’s free media here, and the model is different.”

Despite attacks from the Chinese government, many overseas Chinese volunteer to help NTDTV. Zhong Lee thinks it’s due to two main reasons: “First there is a need, because there is no other global Chinese television network devoted to bringing uncensored news and information to Chinese people and to China. Second, we stand firm to our values. We dare to do what other media don’t, and this ideal inspires people to join us. We have enjoyed amazing support from different corners of society. Our volunteers are very dedicated and work very hard, and they are the driving force behind our success and rapid growth.”

The Epoch Times Newspaper

According to The Epoch Times, over half a million Chinese have renounced their Communist Party membership, Communist Youth League membership, and other ties with the Communist Party, since November 19, 2004. This emerging phenomenon has everything to do with this intriguing newspaper.

On November 19, 2004, The Epoch Times published a series of nine editorial articles called “Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party.” The articles were quickly spread throughout Chinese communities in the West and in Mainland China. Based on feedback published on The Epoch Times website, many people in Mainland China have heard about the commentaries and are trying to get a copy. It has sent shockwaves throughout the country.

The articles were applauded by many, including the well-known Mainland Chinese scholar Mr. Qian Sitong, who said that the Nine Commentaries are “like nine atomic bombs going off in China, and they are shaking the core of the CCP.” According to the newspaper, Chinese communities in New York, Washington DC, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Taiwan and other major cities around the world have held more than 100 forum discussions on the Nine Commentaries. Hundreds of people wrote articles to discuss and share their personal experiences. Several English forums were organized, one of them held in the National Press Club in Washington DC on December 21, 2004.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government and its official media have not openly responded to the articles, but the police have detained writers who have had articles published by The Epoch Times, under suspicion of being the authors of the Nine Commentaries.

Ms. Jun Guo, editor-in-chief of the Chinese edition of The Epoch Times, commented in an interview, “We could not have imagined in the beginning that so many people would resign from the Party. But it is also reasonable, because what we described in the Nine Commentaries was nothing but the truth about the Party. It is an ugly truth that has been concealed for so many years. We are not trying to fight the Chinese Communist Party; we only wanted to tell people the facts. But the Communist Party views this as a challenge to its control over the bodies and minds of its citizens. When people read our editorials, particularly Party members, they often become aware of the Communist Party’s true nature. Something clicks and they resign from it. It’s just that simple.”

It may be simple for Ms. Guo, but for the Chinese Communist Party, this independent media outlet could spell serious trouble.

The Epoch Times newspaper has a total weekly circulation of 800,000, and it was launched in New York in August 2000. After four years of growth, with reporters in 30 countries all over the world, The Epoch Times is distributed in North America, Europe, Australia, Asia and the Pacific. According to Jun Guo, 100% of The Epoch Times’ reporters are volunteers. Meanwhile, reporters in China have made tremendous efforts to get stories and pictures out of the country to shed light on events that the government does not want the outside world to know, with varying degrees of success. Besides the worldwide circulation of the print version, The Epoch Times website contains even more information and plays a more significant role in penetrating the Great Wall. Helped by Internet software developed in the United States and distributed as shareware over the Internet, many Chinese from the mainland can access The Epoch Times online. According to Ms. Guo, its online version receives more than 1,000,000 hits per day, and is one of the most popular online news sources for Chinese in Mainland China.

Ms. Guo continues her introduction, “Browsing The Epoch Times (Chinese) website, one can find various sections from international news to regional news from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and North America, from traditional culture to popular entertainment to travel and health. A rich variety of information is updated daily. A few hundred regular volunteers keep the news network running around the globe 24 hours a day.” The website lists 78 columnists who regularly write for The Epoch Times. The list include Liu Xiaobo, a renowned Chinese dissident in Beijing; Hu Ping, the editor-in-chief of Chinese magazine Beijing Spring; Lin Mu, retired secretary for the former CCP General Secretary Hu Yaobang; Yang Yinbo, a young Chinese writer and civil rights activist; Yu Jie, a young and prominent Chinese freelance writer; Caoan Jushi, a Chinese-American entrepreneur; Gao Zhicheng, a Chinese lawyer known for helping the poor and oppressed; Chen Kuide, a Princeton Chinese scholar; Sun Wenguang, a Mainland Chinese professor; and so on. It is a diverse group, indeed.

Jun Guo sees the growing influence of The Epoch Times as an indication of approval from the Chinese people. “We want to be a voice for the people, and we care for the future of China. That’s our strength,” said the editor-in-chief. Before Ms. Guo became The Epoch Times editor-in-chief, she was an editor for an influential pro-reform mainland newspaper before the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. Later she worked in Hong Kong, first as a magazine editor and then as a reporter for China Times. She never imagined, though, that she would be a driving force behind a global phenomenon like the Nine Commentaries.

Shujia Gong, a George Mason University graduate student and volunteer at Epoch Times, said, “The Nine Commentaries set up a platform for us to study and reflect on Chinese modern history, and through that we can see the mistakes that were made and learn from them. We have to acknowledge the crimes that were committed and go from there. As it is said in the Nine Commentaries, the best approach to change China is to awaken the people’s spirit. Each individual awakening could build up to the nation’s awakening.”

Battle for the Airwaves

The efforts of both Epoch Times and NTDTV to awaken people’s spirit have met with many obstacles, however. On March 17, 2005, Eutelsat, a leading satellite operator, refused to renew a contract with NTDTV. This could shut down NTDTV’s broadcasts into China if Eutelsat does not change its decision by April 15. “The inexplicable decision to suddenly end the contract of an independent broadcaster in this way appears to be a shocking act of censorship,” said Aidan White, general secretary of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), an umbrella group that brings together journalists’ unions in over 100 nations.

The IFJ said that NTDTV had gained an international reputation for “objective and timely reporting of political, economic and cultural stories” since its founding in 2001. It also said that Eutelsat had been under pressure from the Chinese government over its arrangements with NTDTV. Beijing had apparently warned that business opportunities linked to broadcasting the 2008 Olympics would be at risk.

Another group, Reporters Without Borders, said Eutelsat was violating European and International conventions by terminating the contract with NTDTV, which it called “the only non-governmental channel freely reaching Chinese viewers via satellite in the Chinese language.”

Forty-five Members of the European Parliament, National Parliamentarians and other political figures expressed their concern and support to NTDTV:

“We highly value the work of the New Tang Dynasty channel, which provides an independent forum linking Chinese communities globally. NTDTV’s reporting teams work voluntarily in all of our member states of the European Union, reporting on European institutions and issues directly to the Chinese audience in China and around the world. NTDTV is unique among television channels in bringing information on international and regional issues, pluralistic debate, and reporting on events in China to the Chinese audience, uncensored and in their own language.”

After the news “Satellite company refused to renew NTDTVs contract to broadcast into Asia” broke out, many audiences from Mainland China posted their messages on NTDTV’s website. One farmer said:

“I am a peasant in China. I’ve been living frugally to save money so that I have money to buy a satellite dish. Now I bought a dish to watch NTDTV secretly and more people in my village can hear the truth from outside voices. Now, all of a sudden, I hear this horrible news. Is this the European world that claims to have freedom of speech? They are lying to themselves and fooling others!”

Another one had a message to the satellite company,

“To Eutelsat: How are you? I have just come to learn that you are not going to renew the satellite contract with NTDTV. I’m so shocked and sad to hear it. No matter what the reason is, this is going to be a wrong decision. I hope that your company will not make decisions dictated by pressure, but make decisions based on your conscience. The future lies in your one thought. Maybe you cannot read my letter, but I still have to write this because the heaven, the earth, and our conscience will know the right things to do. Greetings to the company and your colleagues.”

Indeed, the battle for the airwaves has never been more intense. According to Reporters Without Borders, the New Skies Satellite Company (NSS of the Netherlands) started to transmit NTDTV programs to China using its NSS-6 satellite on July 1, 2003. Only three days after the kick-off, however, the company encoded the free-to-air programs to prevent China from watching them after it received threats of commercial reprisals from Beijing. Under intense pressure, NSS terminated its satellite transmission in Asia for NTDTV on May 1, 2004.

In 2002, CCTV threatened to back out of the Taipei International Satellite Transmission Company because the satellite company had decided to include NTDTV. It was only after the company revoked its contract with NTDTV that CCTV renewed its contract with the company.

Reportedly, some media companies, including satellite and cable TV stations, have been threatened with political and commercial pressure from the Chinese authorities. ADTH and Mabuhay are among those companies.

Inside the Great WallUnderground TV Stations in China

As reported on a Chinese website ( on October 24, 2004, the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) recently installed a high-power antenna in Kashi, Xinjiang Province, and similar facilities in more than 10 other areas including Hainan, Nanjing, Urumqi and Kunming. These facilities include 500-kilowatt transmitters (type TSW2500) and ALLISS, huge 360-degree-rotational tower antennas to transmit shortwave frequencies. They use “sky wave” jamming technology to obstruct foreign media’s possible influence on the Chinese people.

From June 2000 to September 2001, on the border between Lankao County in Henan Province and Dongmin County in Shandong Province, the “Donglan TV Station” broadcasted for nearly 10 months. This was the first known private TV station in China. Now in regions near the border between Henan and Shandong Provinces, private underground TV stations are becoming more viable and in some regions are developing quickly.

According to a report in South China Metropolitan Daily, in November 2001, Gangxia Village in Shenzhen was found to host several underground TV transmission stations, which were then shut down by the authorities. More than 10 TV modulators and satellite receivers, as well as other related equipment, were confiscated.

According to the newspaper, the underground TV station was located in a small room in a seven-story building in Xilinangang 2nd Industrial Park in the Nanshan District of Shenzhen City. The room was equipped with a generator, a digital satellite receiver, a tape-recorder, an image controller and 14 modulators. This station could receive and broadcast overseas programs not sanctioned by Chinese authorities, as well as produce its own programs. It had more than 10,000 customers.

The Chinese government may have the upper hand for the moment, but the battle of blockade and penetration continues. In June 2004, the Shenzhen Legal Daily reported that the Shenzhen government and police detected an underground TV station, which had more than 10,000 viewers. The Shenzhen Department of Culture stated that it conducts searches every month to detect these kinds of TV stations. It did not reveal how many have been detected so far.

Underground TV stations are not limited to Shenzhen, one of the special regions designated to enjoy looser controls in order to boost the economy. In July 2004, the Waitan Cartoon Daily reported that there was once a popular “He Shan TV Station” in Chenhai Village, Heihumiao Township, Liangshan County, Shandong Province. “He” referred to Henan Province and “Shan” referred to Shandong Province. The name “He Shan TV Station” implied that the Henan and Shandong Provinces created the TV station jointly. However, this was a private, underground TV station. In its coverage range, such as Heihumiao Township in Liangshan County and Malou Township in Taiqian County, the locals could view “He Shan TV” clearly.

According to the Taiqian County Department of Radio and TV Broadcasting, many towns along the Yellow River such as Yuncheng, Dongming and Liangshan had small-scale TV stations. An official from the Yuncheng County Department of Radio and TV Broadcasting confirmed: “Private TV stations are not a special phenomenon in Yuncheng County. They are also quite common in other counties, and even the whole country.”

From a long-term perspective, free information will surely benefit China’s reform. Media outlets like NTDTV and Epoch Times will provide the Chinese people with a window to see the world directly. Chinese civilians, entrepreneurs and officials will be able to broaden their horizons by learning about the latest economic developments and trends, as well as becoming aware of value systems other than the one instilled in them by the Chinese authorities.

As Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, concerned citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”

The Chinese media inside China has not gained as much freedom as the Chinese economy in the past 25 years, and the emerging overseas independent Chinese media is filling in the gap and becoming important factors in China’s future. With the efforts of Zhong Lee, Jun Guo, Joe Zhao, and their volunteer colleagues, there is hope that the “open window” will be wider and wider.

Ann Lee is a Chinascope correspondent.