Two of the world's biggest media conglomerates are promising to make China a star in the United States if it reciprocates by allowing foreign broadcasts to be seen at least in part of the country. If AOL Time Warner and Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. can pull off separate deals, the Chinese will never be the same and Americans will be introduced to a culture most know next to nothing about.
The negotiations are highly significant because of China's strict opposition to any foreign broadcaster beaming a product directly to Chinese audiences. AOL and News Corp. would be the first do so - albeit on a limited basis - to a southern Chinese province near Hong Kong.
Today any foreign programming widely viewed in China is brought to the country by state-controlled television, which presumably filters objectionable material before dissemination. China's communist government keeps a tight rein on its airwaves, regarding the medium as a vital propaganda tool.
So it is remarkable and politically intriguing that the government would even entertain relaxing its dominance on such a portal of influence to allow foreign broadcasters to gain a small foothold in China. But the government is gambling that when Americans are given wide access to its English-language channel, CCTV-9, they will understand China better and its image will improve in the United States.
That may be quite a leap of faith considering the fare offered on both the CCTV and foreign television. While each would no doubt give viewers some insights into the differing cultures, the big picture may be somewhat skewed. One television critic questioned whether China State Television was the best venue for learning about China just as reruns of Dallas or Suddenly Susan would be questionable choices to teach the Chinese about American life.
Still, there appears to be a surprising atti-tude change in Beijing. It signals the government may be ready to accept the inevitability of an expanding media sector and wants to pre-empt trouble by directly shaping its growth to acceptable state standards.
The breakthrough developments are being cheered overseas. “China's increasing openness augurs well for the whole broadcasting industry,” said James Murdoch, youngest son of Rupert, who hopes to clinch a deal to launch a new service for Chinese households in parts of the Guangdong province.
While it is unclear how much freedom foreign broadcasters may eventually receive from China and whether access to its citizens will ever be completely unfettered, it portends a remarkable evolution in the offing between cultures long separated by western ignorance and eastern xenophobia.