Bruno Wu: The empire of the rising Sun takes on the all-conquering Murdoch

Uncensored: the online ambitions of the man who's going into battle to be number one in Chinese media

If at first you don't succeed... Bruno Wu, head of the Chinese media empire Sun Media, admits to meeting "my financial Waterloo" at the hands of Rupert Murdoch. Several years ago, he spent $100m (£53m) trying to make a success of his satellite television channel, Sun TV, but couldn't knock the US tycoon's Star TV off the top spot in China.

Instead of getting mad, Wu decided to get even and in 2004 he came up with a new five-year plan ("in China we do everything in five-year plans," he jokes). This one, he hopes, will eventually crown Sun Media as China's number-one company in new media. If he cannot rule the airwaves at home, he fully intends to rule the internet instead.

Commentators in China now claim the 39-year-old Wu is trying to set himself up as the new Murdoch. He can't help laughing at the comparison, but insists: "I have a lot of respect for him. He is someone I'd look up to." He claims to have read every book written about Murdoch.

Sun Media, which owns a number of newspapers and magazines, made its biggest internet push in February with the launch of the "Her Village" online community. Aimed at blue-collar women, links to Her Village appear on hundreds of websites in China. When users download the magazine-style content, they also download software, called a multimedia reader, which allows Sun Media to transmit news and videos as well as advertising campaigns. Each user can create an online account to buy the products that are advertised. "Once they download the reader, I own you," says Mr Wu, adding that three million women have signed up to the service.

At the same time, Sun Media launched an online community for business people on the back of its financial newspaper, the China Business Post. Another two million have signed up.

Wu takes great pride in the instant success of the two services. "What TV show would have captured an audience of five million?"

As he goes into battle with Murdoch again, it may help that Wu knows a bit about generals and empire building, having studied French civilisation at the University of Savoy in France - Napoleon et al - and international affairs at Washington University. Of greater concern in the West than historical conquests, however, is China's efforts to obstruct the march of information.

The Chinese government last week angered the US and Euro-pean Commission when it announced restrictions on foreign news agencies, such as Reuters, operating in the country. From now on, the state-owned Xinhua must approve any foreign news agency report before it is published. Xinhua will also take a commission on the financial information provided to banks and companies in China, banning the agencies from selling directly to local customers.

The row has highlighted the issue of censorship in China. Access to many foreign news websites, including the BBC's, is blocked, while typing "Tiananmen Square" into a search engine yields no information.

"There are quite a few sites that are blocked. It's a fact of life," admits Wu. But he says the impression in the West of the high level of censorship in China is exaggerated. "It is restrictive but not nearly as bad as you think it is. A big percentage of people's information needs can be satisfied. The only taboo is if you call for the overthrow of government or support Falun Gong [a banned religious group]. There are only a few limited areas."

When pressed, he implies that there are greater priorities than a free media, such as tackling poverty and pollution. "I agree with the universal principle of freedom of press and journalism. But there are a lot of things that need to be changed and improved with the current Chinese society in general."

He argues less convincingly that the appetite to invest in Chinese media shows censorship is not severe. "If it really is that suppressive, how would you explain that in new media you have total dominance of private capital? We make over $200m per year. If society is really that suppressive, how would you explain that?" But just because profits from media are high, that does not mean the level of censorship is low.

The regulations can sometimes be bizarre. One executive for MTV in China recalls asking censors whether the station could run a programme about young people dyeing their hair in many different colours. The reply was that no one could be pictured with more than three colours. "We never call them [censors]," says Wu. "We self-censor. "If I put out 30 colours of hair, the government will not say a thing, I guarantee you. But if you ask the guy, how many colours of hair, you are asking for trouble."

Sun Media, which is backed by investors in Hong Kong, was set up in 1999 by Wu and his wife Yang Lan. It is now the second-largest media group in China, with 37 magazines and newspapers at home and abroad (including America's Entertainment Today magazine) as well as several TV production companies. In 2002, Wu reveals, he negotiated the sale of half of his empire to Bertelsmann. He and the then chief executive of the German media group Thomas Middelhoff had even recorded a TV commercial to announce the joint venture. But when Middelhoff was ousted from the German company, the deal died. "It was Thomas's baby," Wu recalls wistfully. "He was so angry because Bertelsmann could have made $500m."

He says he would not sell part of his company now, even though he has had offers. Internet take-up may be slowing but there is still a way to go, with around 130 million households connected to the web (only 40 million via broadband) out of a population of 1.3 billion. Wu reckons growth will stop at 200 million, but says there is huge potential growth in internet use on mobile phones.

Wu's wife is a high-profile TV personality, seen as China's Oprah Winfrey. She is also chairman of Sun Media. "I'm very proud of my wife. She is the boss," says Wu. If his five-year plan to beat Murdoch comes off, she'll be the boss of a very big empire.

BIOGRAPHY

BORN 25 November 1966.

EDUCATION Diploma in French civilisation, University of Savoy, France; BSc in business administration and finance, Culver-Stockton College, Missouri, US; MA in international affairs, Washington University, Missouri; PhD in international politics, Fudan University, Shanghai.

CAREER

1993-98: independent media consultant.

1998-99: chief operating officer of Hong Kong television network ATV.

1999 to now: executive chairman of Sun Media.

2001-02: co-chairman of Chinese internet media firm Sina Corp.

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