Making Waves, Carefully, on the Air in China

Liu Changle founded Phoenix Satellite Television, China's only private TV network authorized to broadcast news in Chinese.
Liu Changle founded Phoenix Satellite Television, China's only private TV network authorized to broadcast news in Chinese. (By Grischa Rueschendorf)

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By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 19, 2005

HONG KONG -- Liu Changle, the Chinese media tycoon, had just stepped off a plane in Paris and turned on his cell phone when one of his reporters called with the news: Zhao Ziyang, the Communist Party leader ousted for opposing the Tiananmen Square massacre, had passed away after 15 years under house arrest.

It was a politically sensitive story. Zhao's name had probably not been uttered on Chinese television in more than a decade. But the reporter wanted to announce his death on Liu's network, Phoenix Satellite Television. She had even slipped into the hospital where Zhao died and filmed his empty room.

Phoenix is the only private television network in China allowed to broadcast news in Chinese, a privilege that reflects the warm relationship Liu has cultivated with party leaders. But on the phone that day in January, he defied the authorities and quickly approved the Zhao story, recalled the reporter, Rose Luqiu.

While the government barred its own radio and television stations from reporting Zhao's death, Phoenix led its evening newscast with her brief report. Then the station's commentators began discussing Zhao's legacy and whether his death might prompt new calls for political reform.

Almost immediately, one after another, provincial governments began cutting off the Phoenix signal. Alarmed, Liu flew back to Beijing, smoothed things over with the authorities -- and stopped his journalists from pushing the Zhao story any further.

"We walk on a tightrope," says Liu, 53. "If we do everything the government wants, people will treat us with contempt. If we follow the people completely, the government will wipe us out. . . . It can be very uncomfortable."

Frustrated by the party but loyal to it as well, Liu is emblematic of China's new elite. These officials, businessmen and educated urban professionals have benefited most from the party's decision to embrace economic reform while maintaining restrictions on political freedom -- and could determine the future of the country's authoritarian political system.

More than 15 years after the Tiananmen massacre, that system is beset with challenges: rising social unrest, rampant corruption, a bankrupt ideology. But the party's grip on power appears firm, in part because it has won the support of people such as Liu, who presides over a business empire with $500 million in assets, and earlier this year was awarded a seat in the party's national advisory congress.

The story of Liu's climb to the top -- and of the compromises he made to get there -- offers a glimpse into the party's resilience and its success at making friends. But Liu's push for greater media freedom also suggests the Chinese elite is making new demands of the party and might eventually force it to change.

Liu's conflicting roles -- as a beneficiary of party rule and a sponsor of journalism that undermines it -- highlight a critical question about China's future: Will the country's new elite act as an obstacle to democratic reform or an advocate of it?

Choosing His Words

At 6 feet 1 and more than 220 pounds, Liu is a large man, and also gregarious, the kind who can dominate a room by force of personality. Known as a religious Buddhist and a gourmet, he is neither the flashiest nor the most secretive of China's new tycoons.

In an interview in his office overlooking Hong Kong's harbor, he presented himself as an open-minded intellectual who favored gradual democratic reform for China. But he chose his words carefully, stopping when he sensed he was going too far, then joking about jeopardizing his business.


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