Murdoch moves forward in China

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RUPERT MURDOCH'S ambition to gain a foothold in China took a step forward this week when Gareth Chang, a director of Mr Murdoch's News Corporation and head of its Hong-Kong-based Asia television operation, became the first foreign media representative to meet Ding Guangen, the head of the Chinese Communist Party's propaganda department and a Politburo member.

Mr Ding, generally regarded as a hardliner, is responsible for keeping control over the Chinese media. He is a close ally of Jiang Zemin, the President and head of the Communist Party.

Although the meeting took place in Peking last Monday, it was only announced yesterday in a press release from News Corp, which described Mr Ding as head of the Communist Party's "publicity department".

Lily Chan, the spokeswoman for the satellite broadcaster Star TV, said that the meeting covered general topics and was "very pleasant". Mr Ding was quoted by News Corp as saying "he was sure there would be good prospects for exchange and collaboration between News Corp and China".

Mr Chang, a Chinese America known for his good contacts in China, was recently appointed by Mr Murdoch as part of a charm offensive aimed at gaining a foothold in China's television market, which reaches 300 million homes, making it potentially the world's biggest market. In a post-meeting statement, Mr Chang emphasised his company's "full confidence in China's open-door policy".

Such meetings are designed to create a good atmosphere for business developments. By making a political statement after the meeting, Mr Chang went as far as businessmen can be expected to go in currying favour with the Chinese authorities.

Another active participant in the News Corp charm offensive is the Chinese- born Wendy Deng, 31, Mr Murdoch's new partner. She is vice-president of Star TV, responsible for business development, mainly in China.

Having suffered setbacks in the Chinese market News Corp is struggling to make an impact. Its only real commercial operation is a 45 per cent stake in Phoenix Satellite Television, which is claimed to reach 45 million Chinese homes.

In addition, there is a loss-making joint venture with China's People's Daily newspaper, the Communist Party's mouthpiece. Called ChinaByte, the joint venture provides an Internet information website. News Corp sees it as a platform for other information technology joint ventures in China.

A larger investment has been made in a television production and creative facilities company called Golden Mainland, many of whose services have been supplied without charge.

Meanwhile, Mr Murdoch is ensuring none of his companies antagonises the Chinese government. That was shown when he ordered his HarperCollins subsidiary to stop publishing a book by Chris Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong. "We're trying to set up in China. Why should we upset them?" Mr Murdoch said at a press briefing last June in Germany.