Wednesday, October 26, 2005
One needs patience in China
Eight fifty in the morning, while still brushing teeth, I got a call from a reporter. I had sent my resume to all the foreign correspondents in Beijing to look for freelance interpreter job. Eric was the first one called. He had just been granted an interview with the CEO of Phoenix TV at the last minute.
Phoenix TV is the largest Chinese-language satellite TV provider. Partly owned by Murdoch’s News Corp, its news and entertainment channels are accessible in China’s foreign compounds, fancy hotels and upscale apartment complexes, touching millions while out of reach for the common Chinese. Operating from Hong Kong, it’s not subject to China’s tight media control. However, in order to expand its footprint in China and avoid being blacked out during sensitive reporting like CNN, it exercises self-censorship to appease the Mainland government.
One hour later we arrived at the Diao Yu Tai State Guesthouse where the CEO keeps an office when he visits Beijing to dine and wine the officials. During the taxi ride Eric showed me some background materials on Liu Changle, the CEO. Liu started his career as a soldier, advanced through the ranks and then spent 10 years working for the Chinese Central Radio Station. He quit his state job after the Tian’an Men movement in 1989, moved to Houston to trade oil for a state company, went solo afterwards and made loads of money through connections. He then moved into entertainment and started Phoenix TV. The success of Phoenix is in large part due to his finesse with dealing with both Western investors like Murdock and the Chinese government.
At first glance Mr. Liu, dark-skinned and slightly overweight, looked not much different from your typical arrogant nouveau-riche in China. But up close he made everyone at ease with his warm smile and firm handshake. Even though he spoke English very well, he asked me to interpret the interview.
The interview was conducted in a conference room with us sitting around in individual brown-leather sofa seats, very much like how the governmental officials greet foreign dignitaries on Chinese TV news everyday. Eric asked mostly on the recent government crackdown on foreign media – Yahoo was forced to handover data that led to jail term for a Chinese journalist who posted a government edict online; no more media joint-venture was approved and many approved ones were forced to scale back.
The most glaring was the government shutdown of a joint-venture between Star TV (owned by News Corp) and the obscure Qinghai Satellite TV. Many believed that in the chaotic and seemingly lawless China, one can always go ahead until stopped by authorities. Star TV did just that, forming a round-about partnership with a local TV station when the official policy prohibits that. It still shocked many in the industry though when it was shut down, because Murdoch had worked hard to please the Chinese government. But apparently those in power didn’t cut him any slack.
When Eric probed Liu on this incident, Liu replied that he didn’t think that the government is changing its policy, but rather just adjusting the speed and steps of opening up the media industry. He opined that Star TV and Mr. Murdoch (whom he called his friend and partner) made some “technical errors”, and many coming to China expect the government to open the media industry a lot faster than what’s realistic.
Eric then asked about the recent visit of Li Ao, a famous writer and political maverick in Taiwan, to China. Phoenix TV sponsored the event and broadcasted Li Ao’s many speeches live. During Li’s speeches on China’s college campuses, he attacked everybody, including the government for not allowing freedom and even the students in audiences for their lack of political aspiration. Eric asked if the government had asked Liu to persuade Li Ao to tone down.
No, Liu said. His mobile phone was on the whole time and nobody called. He said he was actually more concerned because no one had called to complain.
Then the questions moved to his personal life, such as the following:
Question: Are you a member of the party?
Answer: I was, when I was in the military, for over 10 years.
Q: But you didn’t renew it when you left?
A: (avoiding answering directly) In the summer of 1989 I left my state employment. Like many others in that era, I “went down into the sea” (note: Xia Hai, a Chinese expression for going into private business back in the 80s and 90s when China just opened up).
Q: Important time, the summer of 1989?
A: I don’t want to say too much. You look at the time, you know what happened. For media people it’s still a very sensitive topic. I don’t want to elaborate on it. At that time a lot of people in the media “went down into the sea”… for complex reasons.
The Washington Post story on Liu told of him coming back to China and talking the officials into releasing two prominent dissidents jailed after the Tian’an Men movement.
Once I savored the hidden message in his answer, I had a new respect for this complex man – this is a man who had quit his state job and party membership in protest after June 4th, who rescued his friends from jail, who is a super wealthy businessman and a devote Buddhist, who now maneuvers between the international standards of free journalism and a media-phobic Chinese government, and who believes that democracy will eventually come to China but not now and probably not exactly after the form of the West.
Lastly, when prompted by Eric, Liu offered this sincere advice to anxious media investors like Rupert Murdoch:
“He (Murdoch) shouldn’t despair. To do business in China right now one needs patience and dexterity. He has always been persevering and passionate about his work. In dealing with China he has to continue this style. This is still after all the biggest developing economy in the world.”
We shook hands when we bid farewell in the hallway. He pulled me to the side and asked with that warm smile of his, “can you ask the reporter not to write up anything I said about June 4th?”
When I relayed this request to Eric, he replied:
“I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that.” A moment later, he added,
“There’s rumor that he helped orchestrate the fallout of Murdoch’s partnership with the Qinghai Satellite TV.”