Murdoch dreams of a Chinese empire

Rupert Murdoch appears to be trying to curry favour in China by showing a much-lauded official documentary series about Deng Xiaoping on the Chinese language channel of his Star-TV Asian satellite broadcasting company.

This is not the first time the media magnate has done his bit to educate the world about China's frail 92-year-old patriarch. In early 1995, his publishing group Harper Collins released the English translation of Deng Xiaoping, My Father, a hagiography written by his daughter, Deng Rong.

The Deng series was made by China Central Television (CCTV) and the Central Communist Party Document Research Department, and has won fulsome praise in China's state-controlled newspapers. The 12 one-hour episodes started nightly on CCTV on 1 January, and on Star's Chinese-language Phoenix Channel on Wednesday.

A spokeswoman at a CCTV agent company yesterday said that two Hong Kong television channels and Japan's NHK had also bought the series, while negotiations were under way with a South Korean channel and an American television company.

Mr Murdoch is still peddling furiously to make up for ground lost in China following a speech in 1993 (which Andrew Neil, the former editor of the Sunday Times, claims to have written) in which he spoke of "advances in the technology of telecommunications [proving to be] an unambiguous threat to totalitarian regimes everywhere". The Chinese government got the hint, and soon imposed strict rules on satellite dishes - thus depriving Mr Murdoch of what was potentially his biggest Asian market. In 1994, Star tried to make amends by removing BBC World Service Television from the satellite beaming into China.

While opening up a pay-TV market on the mainland is Mr Murdoch's most ambitious dream, he has also sought to build a relationship with the Chinese government. In 1995, Mr Murdoch's News Corporation set up the PDN Xinren Information Technology joint venture with the Communist Party mouthpiece, the People's Daily.

In November, the head of People's Daily, Shao Huaze, who is also on the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, visited Britain at the invitation of The Times, which is owned by Mr Murdoch. Mr Shao and his delegation stayed at the Ritz, in London, where they received a visit from the Prime Minister, John Major.

Political barriers to foreigners breaking into China's domestic media remain immense. Star claims to have some 36 million viewers watching Phoenix, which is broadcast semi-officially in China through satellite and cable.

However, in August, Li Kehan, the deputy director of China's film and television ministry said bluntly that it was "not possible" that the channel was reaching so many viewers. Hammering his point home, he described Mr Murdoch's television ambitions in China as "beautiful dreams".

Star is clawing back some lost ground in China, particularly in the non- controversial sports arena. But, overall, the Chinese market has proved so difficult for Star that the company is now saying that its main priority in Asia is India.

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