Boom in satellite dishes expands TV menu in China More viewers defy government ban, watch foreign news, Madonna on MTV

January 10, 1993|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau

BEIJING -- China is joining the global TV village.

Small, cheap satellite TV dishes are increasingly being used all over the nation and in defiance of a government ban on watching foreign-generated broadcasts.

The largely uncontrolled proliferation of the dishes represents a technological and information revolution with potentially profound consequences for China, where the government remains obsessed with limiting foreign political influences.

Satellite TV's advent here follows the rapid spread over the last decade of videotape recorders, international phone lines, fax machines and computer modems -- developments that already have greatly diminished the ability of the ruling Communist Party to control the flow of information into the country.

But in just the past two years, "there's been a sea change here as a direct result of how this new TV technology has made this society much more porous to the outside world," says a Beijing-based Western diplomat who studies Chinese media.

An estimated 40,000 dishes -- as small as 4 feet across and costing as little as $350 -- have sprouted on rooftops and in enclosed courtyards in Chinese cities and villages. Many are wired into private, illegal cable systems serving multiple TV sets.

The Chinese state press lately has been predicting that the dishes will be the most sought-after home electrical appliance this decade and that 500,000 dishes will be in use in China within three years.

"Dishes have been all the rage among new appliance purchases," a state newspaper, the Guangming Daily, reported in November. "Some have said that the '60s was the age of the semiconducter, the '70s was the age of the color TV, the '80s was the age of the VCR and the '90s will be the age of the home satellite dish."

For most Chinese, dishes are only supposed to be used to watch satellite transmissions of Chinese state television, in which news and entertainment are still largely intended as government propaganda. Watching foreign broadcasts via satellite TV is illegal without an official permit.

But enforcement of this rule these days is virtually nonexistent. Many dishes are being used to tune in to Star TV, a new Hong Kong-based, satellite TV network that beams to Asia five channels, including the British Broadcasting Corp.'s news programs and an Asian version of MTV, the rock music video station.

Star makes it possible to sit virtually anywhere in China and watch reruns of "Hill Street Blues," the latest Madonna video and the world's news presented from a perspective independent of the Chinese government's.

"I want a satellite dish not because Chinese TV programs are so bad, but because the news media here all feed us junk," says a young Beijing entrepreneur. "We really hate the government. With a dish, I can find out what is really going on in China and the world."

Chinese authorities -- who still routinely try to jam BBC and Voice of America radio broadcasts -- are aware of the new political challenges they face from borderless TV. "In the next decade, the struggle in the airwaves between the enemy and us will be very fierce," warned an internal document issued in late 1991 by China's central TV network.

Officials here at times have ordered foreign-oriented hotels to turn off their dishes. Several stores recently have been fined for selling dishes, and a few state newspapers have been ordered not to accept ads for them.

Loose regulation

But satellite TV signals -- unlike radio transmissions -- are difficult to jam. And typical of the loose regulatory environment these days with China's sudden rush toward a market economy, the dishes' spread appears to have largely eluded government control.

An official at the state Ministry of Radio, Film and Television last week stressed that every dish purchaser must first obtain a government permit. But just an hour later, a salesman at a store run by the same ministry said: "Chinese people don't need a permit to buy a dish, and the police don't check on how they're used."

Dozens of Chinese factories are turning out tens of thousands of dishes a year, according to the state press. These are primarily for export, but many small shops here and in other Chinese cities are peddling them openly.

From a single high vantage point in central Beijing, several hundred small dishes are visible at office, factory and apartment buildings. Two-thirds appear aimed at Star's satellite; most of the rest point toward another satellite carrying the Cable News Network's signals, which require more complex equipment.

The situation is so lax that many Chinese aren't even aware that using dishes to watch foreign broadcasts requires official permission.

"What do you mean it's not legal?" asks a prospective buyer at a Beijing shop. "Everyone in my neighborhood already is watching Star TV."

Some see little effect

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