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Chinese news network in US finds perils of facing Beijing

NEW YORK -- Zhong Lee, president of New Tang Dynasty Television, is dreaming about building up the "Chinese CNN." But the Chinese government may not be happy about the idea.

"We want to be number one" for the Chinese viewer, Lee said recently in the company's cramped Manhattan headquarters.

Occupying 6,000 square feet of space on the top floor of a small office building on 20th Street in Chelsea, just below Midtown, New Tang Dynasty Television, or NTDTV for its initiates, has grown into a satellite network that broadcasts Western-style news and entertainment 24 hours a day in Mandarin and Cantonese to Chinese communities in the United States, Western Europe, Australia, and parts of Asia.

"The idea was to create a PBS-type station that would serve mainly overseas Chinese communities," Lee said.

The network's toughest competition may come from the Chinese government, which is known for its ability to influence media coverage in China and beyond.

"The People's Republic of China right now simply does not want to tolerate any independent TV broadcast," said Arthur Waldron, a specialist on China who is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Waldron added that CCTV, China's state-run television giant that has a large viewership in the Chinese diaspora, "is now action-packed, full of soap operas, thrillers, historical dramas." However, their news programs, Waldron said, are "still hardly accurate."

CCTV's coverage of the Sept. 11 attacks motivated Lee to launch New Tang Dynasty Television. CCTV's reports about the attacks, Lee said, "had a totally different version of the story; the commentary was very sarcastic."

"We had people here who really wanted an independent TV: mostly businessmen who are both passionate about Western democracy and preserving ancient Chinese culture," he said.

Lee insists that he will report fairly about news in China, but that he will not be silent on tough issues such as corruption in the bureaucracy, the SARS virus, and the controversy between Beijing and Falun Gong, the spiritual movement that Beijing outlawed in 1999.

Lee suspects the Chinese government of putting pressure on some of New Tang Dynasty Television's business partners and of exerting influence on local community leaders to bar the network's reporters from events where Chinese officials were present.

Earlier this month, two New Tang Dynasty Television reporters filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, saying the Chinese organizers had not allowed them to cover an anti-SARS benefit concert in Sudbury, an event attended by the Chinese consul general from New York.

Cindy Kexin Yu, one of the reporters, said she had been barred from entering the event because she practices Falun Gong.

Gang Li, president of the Overseas Chinese Entrepreneur Association, one of the event's sponsors, denied that Yu's ties to Falun Gong or that the consul general's presence had anything to do with the incident. He said the reporters had been barred because they had not displayed tickets for the concert.

A Chinese government spokesman, however, was more critical of the new network, as well as of Falun Gong.

"This TV is run by Falun Gong people advocating the Falun Gong fallacy," Sun Weide, a spokesman at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said in a telephone interview.

Lee has denied that New Tang Dynasty Television has any links to the religious group, other than that some of its reporters -- like millions of Chinese -- practice Falun Gong's meditation and exercises. This, he says, is their "private business."

Waldron said that Beijing's efforts to influence overseas Chinese media and diaspora communities are not new, and that Beijing has developed sophisticated methods to fund foreign Chinese media outlets that it supports and to make things difficult for dissenters.

"There is definitely Chinese government money channeled into diaspora journalism," Waldron said.

According to a 2001 report issued by the Jamestown Foundation, an American think tank, most of the Chinese-language media in the United States are either controlled or influenced by Beijing.

The report also suggests that anti-American sentiments in Chinese-American communities are attributable in part to government-influenced reporting "with half-truths and even gross misinformation sometimes being panned as news."

Despite the difficulties and the possibility of repercussions from China, Lee is optimistic about New Tang Dynasty Television's future.

"We expected to have some problems" he said. He added, however, but added that the political climate appears to be changing. "I was brought up in China and experienced many changes there since 1949."

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