Hot talk radio clears the air in modern China News outlets test limits of regime

April 29, 1993|By New York Times News Service

SHANGHAI -- The managers of the Caoxi Vegetable Marke knew that city health officials would never notice if they dumped garbage on the ground. But they hadn't figured on talk radio.

"The garbage is strewn about, attracting rats," sputtered a caller whose remarks were broadcast live over Radio Orient in Shanghai, the hottest station in the country. "It's ugly. And it's unsanitary. Imagine! Rats right next to food stalls!"

This is not quite the stuff of democracy as envisioned in the West. But talk radio, which in the past few months has exploded onto the Chinese news scene in major cities, cuts through the sappy cheeriness that previously filled the airwaves.

Talk radio is just one way in which China's news organizations are testing new limits. After four decades of producing mostly mush, the radio stations, newspapers and, occasionally, television stations are suddenly coming to life.

If there is no crackdown, the increasingly vibrant news outlets may represent a small step toward the building of a civil society in China. In this process, the architects are people like Zhang Qian, 25, who is emerging as a Chinese version of Larry King.

Ms. Zhang, an ebullient and casual woman with an infectious giggle that could bring a smile to the lips of a stone lion, is one of the talk show hosts at Radio Orient. Launched in October, Radio Orient broadcasts to Shanghai and neighboring provinces with a potential audience of about 100 million people.

The station receives 4,000 letters a day, and its four call-in telephone lines are constantly busy. The telephone office once calculated that at peak times, 4,800 people try to get through to the station each minute.

Like other talk show hosts in China, Ms. Zhang does not tackle topics like democracy or human rights. Rather, she explores romance, marriage, business and the daily hurly-burly of living among 14 million people in China's largest city.

When one of her guests, a store manager, boasted of treating each customer as an emperor, she cut him off.

"For years we've been talking about how the customer should be god, or should be emperor," she said. "But why is it that we can never really treat customers that well?"

The authorities once complained about a program in which Ms. Zhang discussed extramarital affairs, but in general she seems to have broad support from the government. The deputy mayor and deputy Communist Party secretary of Shanghai have both appeared on her show.

Callers to the talk show first tell a producer what they want to discuss and leave their name, position, and telephone number. If the producer approves, the station calls the person back -- for efficiency, the station says, but it is also a way of making sure that no one calls the mayor a turtle's egg on the air.

The broadcast is also delayed for 14 seconds, so that anything untoward can be censored. Station officials say that callers are normally on their best behavior, and so they have no formal policy about whether to bleep out such Chinese insults as turtle's egg or baby rabbit.

"The leaders give us lots of freedom," Ms. Zang explained, as she lounged in a reception room at Radio Orient the other day. "But we also know that they are listening. They give us our rice bowl, and we don't want it broken."

"We want to be a little braver, a little more enlightened," she added. "But we want to stay in the realm of what is permitted."

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