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Last Updated: Friday, 19 August 2005, 13:01 GMT 14:01 UK
China's breakneck media revolution
By Dan Griffiths
BBC News, Beijing

Chen Luyu is an unlikely revolutionary.

Known as China's Oprah, she's a petite 30-something Chinese chat show hostess, who invites celebrities and ordinary people onto her sofa to talk about their lives, and tell their stories.
Chen Luyu (file photo)
Chen Luyu's chat show is very popular

But her programme, A Date with Chen Luyu, is part of a dramatic upheaval that's taking place in China's media industry.

Ever since the communists came to power in 1949, television, radio and newspapers in China have been little more than a heavily censored government mouthpiece.

Now widespread economic reforms and the arrival of the internet might slowly be weakening the government's once tight grip.

As a child growing up in 1970s Shanghai, Chen Luyu said she remembered that there was only one television in the compound where she lived.

"All the children would gather round the one set, all sitting on these small wooden stools, watching the TV," she said.

Then there were just one or two television channels, with only a few hours of programming each day.

Since then China has really opened up. The country's staggering economic growth has lead to a rising middle class, interested not in old-style state propaganda, but leisure, fashion, celebrities and the outside world.

Economic reforms have produced sweeping changes across the media industry, with many new television channels available as well as hundreds of newspapers and magazines covering everything from football to fashion.

Beijing-based media analyst Rowan Simons said everything had suddenly changed in recent years.

If I type in words like 'Dalai Lama' or 'human rights' into the search engine in either Chinese or English, up pop links to several websites, but when I click on them I can't get access
"The average urban citizen can receive over 50 channels covering everything from news to sports to the movies, and there are even more niche channels now like travel channels and shopping channels."

The media here now also has more freedom to report on previously taboo subjects like crime, HIV/Aids and official corruption.

Some newspapers have developed a reputation for hard-hitting investigations. Talk radio has become increasingly popular, and callers can ring up and speak their mind on all sorts of issues without having to reveal their identities.

State censorship

But state censorship has not gone away. If you go too close to sensitive political topics like democracy or Tibet, the penalties are severe.

According to human rights groups, the Chinese government still has more journalists in prison than any other country in the world.

Programming from many international broadcasters is often censored as well.

And all publishing houses are still government-owned, so the authorities can control precisely what goes in the newspapers.

Internet

But the arrival of the internet may slowly be reducing the government's ability to censor media content.

China already has more than 100 million internet users, making it second only to the US in terms of the number of web surfers.

It is a figure that is likely to grow dramatically in the next few years.

Internet cafes are increasingly common in many of China's big cities - row upon row of sleek computer screens where the younger generation come to surf, chat or play games.

It's a scene you might find in many other parts of the world. But there's a major difference - the Chinese government regularly tries to block access to material it considers pornographic or politically subversive.

 A Chinese woman uses MSN services on the Internet at a cyber cafe in Beijing Tuesday June 14, 2005.
The Chinese authorities block sensitive websites

So if I type in words like "Dalai Lama" or "human rights" into a search engine in either Chinese or English, up pop links to several websites, but when I click on them I can't get access.

Whilst researching this article neither the BBC news site nor the BBC Chinese Service site were accessible.

But if I go to the websites of several other well known international news organisations - albeit in English, but that not a problem for many Chinese students and professionals - I can read whatever I want.

It's a sign that no matter how hard the Chinese government would like to decide what its citizens see, it simply cannot control access to all parts of the web.

Some analysts believe that the Chinese government is already starting to lose the battle over internet control, particularly with the advent of mobile web technology, which is much harder to regulate than fixed line access to the internet.

"I think the internet is definitely having an impact on sources of information," said Mr Simons.

"It's driven mainly by games and chat, rather than harder political issues, but at the same time the internet is starting to have an effect inside China, with a number of articles starting to appear on websites about corruption and other issues, that have forced action."

The internet, television, radio, newspapers and magazines - all have changed dramatically in China in the past few years.

And it's likely that the media will continue to play a very central role in the changes in Chinese society.

For a government so used to having firm control over the media, the irony is that its own policies have created a situation where that tight grip is slowly being undermined

"TV penetration is something like 96% of the population; internet 100 million users; mobile phones 350 million people using them," said Mr Simons.

"So there is no thought by the Chinese government that they are going to turn back the clock or take away the phones. It's a very exciting time in China, and for Chinese people who use the media."

China's media world is symbolic of many of the changes going on here at the moment.

But what began as economic reform may have a more far-reaching effect. For a government so used to having firm control over the media, the irony is that its own policies have created a situation where that tight grip is slowly being undermined.

China's information revolution has begun, and there is no way back.




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