Beijing belatedly tries to recapture its runaway communications industry

October 30, 1993|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Staff Writer

BEIJING -- While much of the world is trying to figure out how to provide freer and faster communications, China is seeking to block the global flow of information at its borders.

Earlier this month, Premier Li Peng signed a government decree essentially banning most Chinese from using what lately has been one of China's hottest consumer items -- small, affordable satellite TV dishes -- to watch foreign broadcasts.

Use of the dishes to watch foreign TV shows has been outlawed here before. But controlling it now likely will be an uphill battle in which even the Chinese government is operating at cross-purposes.

Tens of thousands of the dishes -- a sizable share believed made by Chinese military industries -- have proliferated on urban rooftops and in small villages all across China over the last few years.

The government itself has distributed many of the dishes to pull in national educational TV programs and to help the increasing number of state agencies and companies involved in foreign commerce.

But many Chinese have been using the roughly 4-foot-wide dishes to tune into a free, pan-Asian broadcast service called Star TV. Its five channels offer an Asian version of MTV, sports, news in English from the British Broadcasting Corp., and American and Chinese talk shows, plus U.S. TV productions like "Hill Street Blues."

To watch Star's programs, neighbors have set up their own cable TV systems within apartment buildings. Some stores and restaurants have been openly showing MTV on their TVs to attract customers. Soldiers watch in their barracks outside Beijing.

This boom -- both a technological and information revolution for China -- took place in open defiance of an earlier government order in 1990 barring the use of satellite TV dishes to watch foreign-generated broadcasts without official permission.

Premier Li's decree this month reiterates that requirement, adding that those already owning dishes have six months in which to get permits. It's widely expected that official permission will be limited to firms that cater to foreigners and those involved in foreign trade and finance.

For the time being, though, there are some signs that this new order also may be ignored by many.

At Suman Electronics, a leading Beijing vendor, sales have plummeted since the latest government order from about 500 dishes a month to just a trickle, says Li Yongcheng, the company's manager.

But Suman still sells the dishes. And one of its saleswomen even encourages prospective buyers with tips on how to conceal them from authorities -- by placing them in enclosed courtyards, for instance.

Checks this week at several other Beijing electronics stores confirmed that dishes remain widely available. Some stores now offer back-dated receipts, on the uncertain theory that proof of ownership prior to the latest government order may provide some protection from possible punishment later.

Even a retail store run by the national Ministry of Radio, Film and Television, still sells the dishes.

"The new regulations aren't too clear yet. We tell people abou them, and then we're not responsible for what happens after they buy the dishes from us," said Ms. Zhang, a manager there who gave only her surname.

While enforcement of the ban may not yet be strict, there seems little question that authorities here are catching up with the potential impact of rapidly developing technologies on their tight political control over the world's largest populace.

HTC "Our control over foreign-originated TV programs is a question of national sovereignty," Wang Feng, a national vice minister of radio, film and TV, said in explaining the satellite dish order.

"Such control is beneficial to the cultivation of patriotism among our citizens, safeguards the superior tradition of the Chinese race, promotes socialist civilization and maintains social stability," he said.

Similar worries led officials here in recent years to attempt unsuccessfully to register fax machines and computer modems. These devices have enabled some Chinese dissidents to easily communicate with supporters abroad, even during the height of the political crackdown after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.

Following the satellite TV order this month, officials also decreed the need for licenses for companies offering pager and portable phone services and banned foreign-invested ventures from operating such services -- which have proliferated in most Chinese cities.

"Communication is the nation's nerve system and involves the ++ nation's secrets and security," the state-run Economics Daily newspaper recently argued for the foreign-ownership ban. "If China's information system is spread about and not grasped firmly in hand, how can people feel safe?"

But money -- not just politics -- also may be behind the moves toreassert control over both the TV and telecommunications markets, according to a foreign analyst here, who asked not to be identified.

China's state-run TV stations already air many foreign shows, from old movies to shows such as "Dynasty." So control over advertising revenue in a market of 800 million TV viewers may be as much the issue as the potential effects of foreign broadcasts.

China, likewise, is the world's fastest-growing telecommunications market, one with a huge profit potential that has attracted the interest of many foreign firms.

"There's a lot of money to be made here in TV and telecommunications," the analyst said. "A lot of Chinese ministries and companies want to keep the action for themselves. They can't do that if everyone here is watching satellite TV or if the telephone companies are owned by foreigners."

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