Cool reception for STAR trek to China

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 February, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 February, 1994, 12:00am

FOR a group of people supposedly looking to convey a message of goodwill across the Putonghua-speaking world in time for Lunar New Year, the atmosphere was markedly ill-tempered.

Perhaps it was the effect of being crowded into the shabby, overheated dressing room at the Po Li theatre; strewn with crushed peanut shells, it looked as if it had recently been used to kennel stray dogs. Or perhaps it was the promises of close co-operation made by the hosts, Beijing TV, that had evaporated as quickly as exhaled breath in the cold winter air of the Chinese capital.

''I know why they call this a television shoot; there is someone over there I would like to shoot right now,'' a public relations officer grumbled as the camera crew prepared to start filming.

For three nights this week STAR TV's Chinese Channel will be showing a series of special programmes to celebrate Lunar New Year's Eve, using filmed segments from Singapore, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Los Angeles and Beijing. The inserts will be slotted in between items produced by Beijing TV and Shanghai Oriental TV as part of their own festive celebrations.

The project breaks no new ground technically or artistically, but it comes at an important time for STAR TV in its relations with the mainland. Late last year the Chinese authorities began to order its citizens to pull down rooftop satellite dishes that had been feeding them, among other things, an around-the-clock diet of STAR TV's five channels, because of Communist Party concerns it was unable to control the inflow of information.

In addition, last month China Culture News announced that after two years of relative autonomy on the part of its film studios, the country was moving to restrict co-productions with foreign companies and stamp out joint ventures - another manifestation of official moves to limit Western influences, which would also seem to include Taiwan and Hong Kong.

So as he travelled to Beijing last week, STAR TV Chinese Channel general manager Kam Kwok-leung would have been aware of his piggy-in-the-middle status. On one hand, the mainlanders are hungry for Putonghua entertainment from outside their own country. But at the same time state-controlled media organisations like Beijing TV have been constantly shifting their position to match current official thinking.

Yet in a typically Chinese paradox, the members of the team who travelled to Shanghai for the second half of the filming schedule found themselves welcomed with open arms not only by Shanghai Oriental TV, but also the mayor of the city, who hosted a banquet for them.

For Mr Kam and his team in Beijing, it was an often frustrating three days - tolerated but hardly encouraged by their ''partners''. They were able to film in public and interviewed celebrities such as Gong Li, director Zhang Yimou and actor Ge You (Farewell to My Concubine ). Yet they were denied a press conference with local newspapers to publicise the visit.

The experience at Po Li was typical. Halfway through a series of interviews in the theatre, security staff brusquely told the Hong Kong party to leave the auditorium and moved them to the shabby dressing rooms at the back of the building. Here they had to film a sequence under harsh and inappropriate strip lighting.

''There has been no official permission for us to film, so we cannot have anyone from Beijing TV with us. It is such a contrast with what Shanghai is offering,'' one member of the party said.

Mr Kam, whose friendship with Gong Li and Zhang Yimou dating from his role as executive producer of Terracotta Warriors in the late 1980s secured him an exclusive interview with the pair, defended the close relationship between STAR TV's Chinese Channel and mainland stations.

''We are the window to the world, or at least the region we cover, for Chinese television products and we have a long history of providing co-production ventures with them. I do not see there is any conflict with what we have been doing and their attitude to us, and I do not think that it has changed.'' Whatever the vagaries of China's official policy towards STAR TV, it seems ordinary citizens are sorry to see the removal of the satellite dishes. The station's latest research claims 30.5 million homes have access to STAR TV.

But a senior STAR TV executive is confident satellite dishes will be back sooner rather than later. He believes the Chinese action against private dishes is to enable authorities to find out for the first time the number of people watching foreign television programmes. As a recent deal signed between the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and China Central Television to air Australian programming on the state-run channels shows, it is not the content of foreign television that automatically disturbs themainland authorities, but when they have no say in how it is transmitted.

''This is a clever move because they know realistically they cannot stop the signals from coming in, but this way they can regulate how they are seen. The Chinese want to build state-run cable TV systems. Not only does this allow them to control what goes out, but they can get revenue from all the subscribers.

''They can also, for propaganda purposes, be seen to be making a strong and determined stand against Western influences - it is a very well thought-out strategy indeed,'' the STAR TV executive said.