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Friday, November 16, 2007

Chinese Dissidents Take On Beijng Via Media Empire

WASHINGTON — Most days, Xiang Dong leads a life typical of this city’s suburban office worker. But at nights, he takes on another persona: China dissident.

The bespectacled Mr. Xiang, a 38-year-old father of two, hosts a pair of weekly talk shows for a U.S.-based satellite-TV broadcaster called New Tang Dynasty Television. Setting up at a bare-bones studio at a high school one night, he fiddled with his laptop-cum-teleprompter. “I forgot my power cord,” sighed Mr. Xiang, who works as a database manager. “I’ll just have to rely on batteries.”

Making do is the modus operandi for the largely volunteer staff of New Tang Dynasty TV. Yet they are helping build one of the most significant overseas dissident movements to challenge China in decades. Most staffers belong to Falun Gong, a Chinese spiritual-and-meditation movement banned by Beijing as an “evil cult.” What started as an effort by U.S.-based Falun Gong practitioners — many immigrants from China — to speak out against a government crackdown back home has evolved into a broadcaster with big aspirations.

New Tang Dynasty broadcasts to the U.S., Europe and Asia, including China. It is one of a growing number of media organizations run mostly by Falun Gong practitioners, including a radio station and a newspaper with editions in 10 languages. There is also a film-production company, a performing-arts school, dozens of Web sites and a Chinese cultural show, which has played around the world, including New York’s Radio City Music Hall and the Kennedy Center in Washington.

The group’s ambitions have grown, says New Tang Dynasty President Zhong Lee. “At the beginning, a big part was to speak as the voice of Falun Gong,” he says, at the station’s cramped headquarters in midtown Manhattan. “But media can also play a big role pushing democracy in China.”

Falun Gong follows in a long tradition of sects in China that have challenged the state. Falun Gong started in 1992 as a spiritual movement intended partly to improve practitioners’ health. While a government crackdown has largely contained Falun Gong in China, the group has flourished overseas, driven by well-educated practitioners who volunteer time, money and technological expertise to push their cause, to what some experts describe as a near-fanatical degree.

Question of Funding

A question surrounding these media organizations is how they are funded. Some Chinese officials privately question whether they get backing from Beijing’s political nemesis, Taiwan, or from groups determined to embarrass Beijing in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, although publicly they say that they don’t know where the funding originates.

Charles Lee, press director of the Taiwan Economic and Cultural Office in Chicago, one of the Taiwan government’s representative offices in the U.S., said, “I’ve never heard this rumor . I think it’s problematic.”

New Tang Dynasty says the bulk of its revenues come from donations by individuals. Its staff is comprised mainly of Falun Gong adherents, who often pay out of pocket for equipment and other expenses. Executives say they don’t receive Taiwanese government funding. The Epoch Times, the Falun Gong-affiliated newspaper, says ad sales cover “the majority of costs” for its Chinese-language editions, and that those editions help finance operations for the English-language ones.

New Tang Dynasty’s revenues were $4.7 million in 2005, according to its Internal Revenue Service filings as a nonprofit. Mr. Lee says last year’s revenues were about $5 million, and that they will increase to $6 million or $7 million this year.

For Chinese officials and other Falun Gong opponents, the growing influence of NTD is evidence of their longstanding assertion that the group was never just a spiritual movement. NTD and its sister organizations report frequently on Falun Gong-related news and often focus on negative news out of China. They have also sometimes played up stories discredited by Western media and human-rights groups, such as China’s alleged systemic harvesting of the organs of detained Falun Gong practitioners for use in transplants.

At the same time, NTD’s programs, broadcast in Chinese and English, address issues that remain largely off-limits to China’s state-controlled media, from political corruption to the spread of the infectious disease SARS in the country in 2003.

During elections in the U.S. and Taiwan, NTD beamed live feeds to show democracy in action, and is gearing up to do the same for the 2008 U.S. presidential race. The broadcaster also airs movies, cooking shows, a sports program and other entertainment.

Viewers can tune in to New Tang Dynasty’s programs via satellite dish or online. In China, the government bans individual dish ownership and blocks Falun Gong-related and other politically sensitive Web sites. But illegal dish ownership is widespread, and some Internet users have found ways to skirt official fire walls, including by using tools developed by Falun Gong adherents.

New Tang Dynasty TV and affiliated organizations “allow an opposition voice to exist,” says He Qinglian, a visiting scholar at Princeton University. “That’s their biggest value.”

The group faces numerous hurdles, from a dearth of full-time staff to questions about its credibility, as well as what its executives and independent academics describe as interference from Beijing, such as efforts to discourage sponsors.

Wang Baodong, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., declined to discuss any specific actions allegedly taken by the embassy involving New Tang Dynasty TV or other Falun Gong-affiliated groups.

“Falun Gong is an evil cult and political organization bent on conducting activities against China and sabotaging China-U.S. relations,” he said. “It has a lot of groups under it, and it’s very clear they all oppose the Chinese government.”

No reliable data are available for the number of Falun Gong adherents. In 2000, Beijing put the number of China-based followers at two million, though other estimates have been much higher.

A self-described dissident in the Chinese province of Guizhou, who asked to be identified only by his last name, Chen, says he began tuning into NTD’s Web casts on his computer after learning about them from human-rights activists. State-run Chinese television “can’t compare to NTD’s openness,” says Mr. Chen. But the station’s viewers aren’t limited to dissidents, he says: “Average citizens” watch its shows, too.

NTD also serves as a platform for China’s pro-democracy dissidents, who have been torn by internal squabbling and lack of organization. Contributors have included veteran Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng and human-rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who was detained by Chinese police in September after writing a letter critical of China to U.S. lawmakers.

Mr. Xiang, who heads NTD’s Washington office, got his first taste of activism by fighting for democracy in China — as part of the Tiananmen Square 1989 protests. A student at Renmin University of China, he says he was in the square on the night the Chinese military moved in.

“I never believed the Communist Party would do this,” he says. “I decided that night to leave China….I had no interest in China’s future.”

In 1990, Mr. Xiang went to study accounting at Old Dominion University in Virginia. After graduating, he got a job as a financial analyst in the Washington, D.C., area and married his girlfriend from China, who moved to join him.

A search for spiritual mooring in his new country led Mr. Xiang — who, like many Chinese, grew up atheist — to Falun Gong. After reading a book on the movement given to him by a visitor from China, he began to practice its breathing exercises and moral precepts.

In the early years after Li Hongzhi founded Falun Gong in northeastern China, Beijing generally ignored it. But in July 1999, Chinese authorities launched a crackdown, after Falun Gong practitioners held a large protest in Beijing over Chinese media criticism of the movement.

Recalling Tiananmen Square

To Mr. Xiang, “it was just like” the Tiananmen Square protest. “Ten years had passed, and they hadn’t changed.”

He was determined to fight back. In a discussion during their daily 5 a.m. exercise session at a city park, Mr. Xiang and other Falun Gong followers decided they needed to explain Falun Gong to the general public.

They joined Falun Gong adherents from around the U.S. who were gathering in front of the Chinese embassy in Washington. Some met with embassy officials. Others passed out information packets. In November 1999, Congress passed a nonbinding resolution calling on China to stop persecuting Falun Gong adherents.

But Mr. Xiang and others also sought a more direct way to counter what they felt was a negative message being fed by Beijing to the media about Falun Gong. So they started their own media. In Birmingham, Ala., a group of followers set up a news Web site. California adherents learned to produce TV programs. In Washington, some started a radio station, and others set up a newspaper.

Mr. Xiang decided to focus on producing TV shows. In July 2000, he enrolled in evening classes offered by Fairfax Public Access, a nonprofit organization providing media-production facilities.

One of his first programs to air on Fairfax Public Access’s Channel 10 was a minidocumentary about Falun Gong adherents. “Our teacher watched it and said it could be more professional,” Mr. Xiang says. Undeterred, he produced more programs featuring Falun Gong followers.

As the various projects gathered steam, some banded together. Local newspapers eventually merged to become the Epoch Times, and the radio stations united into Sound of Hope radio network. In October 2001, a dozen activists gathered in New York to discuss setting up a 24-hour satellite TV station serving North America.

Carrie Hung, a Chinese-American who grew up in New York’s Chinatown and runs a women’s apparel business, focused on raising funds. Like others involved in the TV endeavor, she was a Falun Gong practitioner and volunteered her time. Supporters in Taiwan and democracy activists offered free programming. The venture acquired rights to some films, including old Western movies subtitled in Chinese.

Ms. Hung says donations, including some big ones from U.S.-based Chinese individuals, paid for the main expenditures: satellite and office rental.

Mr. Xiang, who makes a six-figure salary at his database-management job, estimates he has spent at least $10,000 of his own money to help build the Washington station. He says he spends five or six hours each night on his two talk shows — one on economics and one on China — for which he serves as reporter, writer and producer.

Still, financing remains a headache. Mr. Lee estimates individual donations account for 70% to 80% of revenues. NTD has recently begun a campaign to solicit donations from viewers on its Web site. And while ad sales have grown, he says, “our corporate sponsors don’t match our reach, because we’re on the Chinese government’s blacklist.”

In 2004, New Tang Dynasty started a Chinese New Year cultural performance to help supplement funding. Many of the show’s acts, which feature both professional Chinese artists and students of a Falun Gong-affiliated performing-arts school, are imbued with Falun Gong sentiment and symbolism. One depicts a follower being beaten by Chinese police before she ascends to heaven. The show was performed in about 30 cities around the world this year, compared to four the first year, backers say. The show plans to tour more than 40 cities for the coming season.

On opening night at Washington’s Lisner Auditorium in January, Mr. Xiang hosted a preshow gathering. “We have endured heavy interference from the Chinese Communist regime since the beginning,” he said to Falun Gong adherents, journalists and Washington figures nibbling on sushi and egg rolls. “But we love China…and we will be more successful in the future.”

New Tang Dynasty officials say the Swatch Group Ltd. originally signed up to sponsor the show, but pulled out after Chinese officials told the company the program was affiliated with Falun Gong.

Swatch said in an email statement that it canceled its sponsorship because the show was “not in line with the overall marketing concept of Swatch headquarters for the Chinese New Year.” Swatch said New Tang Dynasty approached it to sponsor the show “without revealing that a political group stood behind the commercial company.”

Ms. Hung of New Tang Dynasty says, “We always tell our potential sponsors what NTD is about and what our shows are like.”

Another challenge for NTD and sister organizations has been how to strengthen credibility with audiences and sources. A few of the volunteer staff have journalistic backgrounds, but most don’t.

White House Briefing

Last year, an Epoch Times reporter, part of a group of journalists covering a meeting between Chinese President Hu Jintao and President Bush, made headlines around the world when she yelled insults at Mr. Hu during a briefing on the White House lawn. Wang Wenyi, a pathologist by profession who was volunteering at the newspaper, says she undertook the action on her own. The paper later apologized to the White House, and Ms. Wang no longer reports for the paper.

NTD, the Epoch Times and Sound of Hope Radio were about the only media covering an annual Falun Gong rally in Washington in July. With several thousand adherents convening in front of the Capitol, NTD’s broadcast focused on praise for the movement by U.S. congressmen and human-rights activists. Mr. Xiang hosted a live Web cast of the event.

To strengthen professionalism, NTD holds training sessions with experienced journalists, such as Wu Baozhang, former China director for Radio France International. Editors meet weekly to discuss the previous week’s programming and how to improve it.

“There are all kinds of demand for different programming, but our funding isn’t sufficient,” says Mr. Lee. Eventually, NTD hopes to move to income sources such as movies-on-demand and revenue sharing with cable systems.

For Mr. Xiang, who hosts two weekly talk shows, there is a downside to all the growth. “Before, I practiced the Fa [meditation and exercises] two hours a day,” he says. “Now I do it only for one hour. Everyone’s busy.”

– By Kathy Chen

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