Peking censors dished by satellite TV

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The Independent Online
IT'S Saturday evening and one of the world's fastest-growing television audiences must decide what to watch. Highlights on Peking's state-owned channels last weekend included a traditional Peking opera, Luo Cheng Dies in an Ambush, and a feature film, Good Morning, Peking, in which, according to the blurb, a bus conductor, 'unsatisfied with her poverty and demeaning position, is determined to better herself . . . in this film describing ordinary urban youth'.

But while Chinese urban youth was bettering itself, over on the satellite channels there was more enticing fare: an MTV 'Rockumentary' on David Bowie, international sport, the BBC news, and Mandarin-language dramas. Those close enough to Hong Kong to pick up the colony's channels could have tuned in to Gone with the Wind or an action-packed Cantonese feature film.

In the cut-and-thrust world of aggressive programming, China's state-owned television channels have yet to join battle. But there are other weapons in any ratings war. The government has announced new regulations banning people or 'work units' - which include all state-related businesses, offices and housing blocks - from installing or using satellite dishes. It was the latest attempt to clamp down on a flow of information and entertainment that, because of advances in technology and falling prices, the government no longer controls.

According to official figures, there are 40,000 satellite dishes in China, despite restrictions issued in 1991. This is certainly a huge underestimate and, in any case, one satellite dish is usually connected by cable to several homes.

Satellite dishes cost about 4,000 yuan (pounds 350), well within the budget of many families. At one Peking store, the assistant said he sold about 10 a month, mostly to individuals.

Under regulations, licences are needed for production, import, sales, installation and use of dishes. Individuals and work units are banned from using dishes unless they cannot receive normal television signals or need satellite programmes for work. Violations will be punished by fines of up to 5,000 yuan for individuals and 50,000 yuan for work units. Those who have dishes must get a licence within six months.

In an environment where a film such as Farewell My Concubine has recently had a difficult time getting past the censors, the free flow of news and culture via satellite television appears increasingly threatening to the authorities. The new regulations were to 'promote building socialist spiritual enlightenment', the order said.

Cracking down on the industry will not be easy, because so many different organisations are profiting from it. Former defence electronics factories have converted production lines to manufacture civilian satellite dishes; import companies are bringing in foreign models; state-owned shops are selling the dishes.