Network offers free press for Chinese in US

Jennifer Zhang was studying in Shanghai in 1989 when her father phoned her from the United States, warning her not to go to Tiananmen Square.

Ms. Zhang heard stories of the violence from friends who returned from Beijing, but she didn't understand the full force of her father's request until she moved to the United States in 1990 and saw the news footage.

Fifteen years later, Chinese media still have not disclosed to the country what happened in June 1989, when tanks and troops massacred hundreds of pro-democracy student activists.

"It's good to know these truths," she says from her home outside Boston.

Free press is still a foreign concept in mainland China, where legislation severely restricts news content (even SARS was kept quiet). But a rapidly growing Chinese-language television station, headquartered in New York, hopes to reverse the impact of censorship and propaganda on worldwide Chinese communities, who still rely heavily on media from mainland China for their news.

Zhang, a reporter for the nonprofit network, is now disseminating the kind of news - unfiltered - that she says was absent from her life in Shanghai. Between raising two children and earning a business degree, she volunteers for the fledgling station, New Tang Dynasty Television - the first independent Chinese-language TV station in the US.

"My husband told me, 'It's an investment. Hopefully the station will one day be as big as CNN, and you will be a pioneer,' " Zhang says.

The reward will come when all Chinese communities can tune in to an unbiased news source, she says from her home office as her mother watches NTD-TV's Mandarin broadcasts on Iraq downstairs.

The satellite network, established two years ago, has grown from a small office in Manhattan's Chelsea district to 50 bureaus worldwide, from Australia to Europe and Asia, though most viewers are in the US.

The burgeoning population of Chinese-Americans demanded an uncensored media source, say founders of NTD-TV, which is largely funded by investors and donors. Nearly 2 million Chinese immigrants have limited English skills, making them dependent on Chinese media, according to a 2001 Jamestown Foundation report. CCTV, China's official TV station, "is identifiably anti-American ... and greatly at odds with reporting produced in the free world," the report reads.

Even independent Chinese media overseas are constrained by their economic ties to the government, affecting the news content that sways many Chinese-Americans worldview, the report says.

Mr. Lee was astonished by the Chinese perspective shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. He was running late to work at a Manhattan financial firm when he saw the two towers collapse. People around him were crying and comforting one another. But in Chinese chat rooms online, and in news from China, people were almost happy, he says. The general sentiment was that the US had got its due.

"There are things about which [the Chinese] have a skewed point of view," says Andrew Nathan, a China specialist at Columbia University in New York. "They only hear the government line, and can't imagine an alternative view to their own."

Wenli Zheng, a software engineer living outside Boston, began watching NTD-TV two months ago when he purchased a satellite dish. He raves about the entertainment and the news reporting.

"The Chinese government doesn't like people to know the real things. Everything they tell is good: The country's good, the economy's good, everything's good," he says. "Now I realize while living in China I was just totally treated like an idiot. All I knew was what the Chinese government wanted me to know."

Now, after dinner each night, Mr. Zheng flips straight to NTD-TV news. He also watches American movies, with Mandarin subtitles, while his 7-year-old daughter learns how to read poems from various Chinese dynasties through NTD-TV's children's programming.

The station says it hopes to bridge gaps between modern Chinese and their heritage, as well as between Eastern and Western cultures.

NTD-TV is still on wobbly legs, with most of its bureaus operating out of people's homes and many of its employees working without pay. The small New York office was almost entirely built by volunteers, and during peak hours it's crammed with reporters, editors, and technicians. At news events, Zhang's hand-held camera looks like a toy compared with the hulking equipment around her.

"What we have is not money but dedication," says Zhang, who acts as cameraman, reporter, and engineer. "You have to wear different hats at the beginning. That's how we became very efficient."

Support from the Chinese community is NTD-TV's lifeblood. Half of the employees lived through China's Cultural Revolution, when intellectuals were persecuted en masse from 1966 to 1976. Those memories motivated Zhong Lee, NTD-TV'S president and cofounder, to use television as a medium to serve the widest possible audience, from financiers to illiterate sweatshop workers.

But NTD-TV's range stops abruptly at China's border. Beijing has jammed its signal, an NTD-TV engineer says.

"We won't allow this spread of fallacies in the government," says Sun Weide, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington. "It is not actually public media, but in reality a propaganda tool of the Falun Gong."

A common criticism of the station, its founder says, is that it is too closely linked to the Falun Gong, a spiritual movement that the Communist government banned as an "evil cult" in 1999.

Unlike other Chinese news sources, NTD-TV reports on the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners, while China denies abusing any of them.

The Chinese government is not the station's only critic. A number of Chinese-Americans disapprove of the way the station probes the darker sides of China, those at NTD-TV say.

It's a backlash Lee says he anticipated. He expected that a rising independent force in a flat media landscape would draw some antagonism.

Perhaps with a change in government or a shift in attitudes, NTD-TV will surge in popularity, Lee says. "It could happen overnight."

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