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China's clash with reporters reverberates here
Gaiutra Bahadur of Philadelphia Inquirer

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In China, behind what has been called the "Bamboo Curtain," the government has banned satellite dishes in the countryside, one chapter in its crackdown on the Falun Gong spiritual movement and on independent media.

Some believe that another chapter might be unfolding on American soil through skirmishes involving a global satellite TV station critical of the Chinese government and powered by volunteer reporters, some of them followers of Falun Gong.

The TV station says its reporters are being shut out of events by pro-China groups. China says the station is nothing but a propaganda tool for Falun Gong.

A reporter in the Philadelphia bureau of New Tang Dynasty TV alleges she was booted from a Chinese consulate-backed New Year's gala at the University of Pennsylvania because she practices Falun Gong, the Buddhist-like mix of mysticism and meditation viewed by China's ruling party as an "evil cult" and a rival for the loyalties of its people.

"I was kicked out of a public event organized by the City of Philadelphia," Lily Sun said. "I'm not in China. The Liberty Bell is here. America was founded here."

Sun planned to cover the Jan. 30 gala - cosponsored by the city's Commerce Department - as a prelude to an event that is scheduled to bring 400 Chinese companies to the Convention Center in 2005 to foster trade, cultural and business ties between Philadelphia and China.

During a pause in a performance by the Yunnan Provincial Opera and Dance Theater, however, the president of a pro-China group told Sun that she had to leave.

The head of the Global Chinese Alliance for the Unification of China, Temple University math professor John Chen, had tried to block Sun and her cameraman at the event entrance.

"Who invited you here?" he asked.

The city, Sun replied. She produced her press pass for New Tang, a Manhattan-based station that has reported on the Chinese government's persecution of Falun Gong and on its cover-up of the SARS epidemic.

The city's communications director, Barbara Grant, had lunch with Sun last week and urged her to file a complaint with the city's Human Relations Commission. She defended the reporter's right to cover the event.

"We were very sorry she might have been mistreated at an event the city was involved with," Grant said. "We're a free-media country, and discrimination of any type is not to be tolerated."

Said Chen: "These people aren't really press. We want the Chinese image to be projected to American society in the proper way... . [New Tang] has a political agenda to make the government look bad."

The clash between Chen and Sun was a replay of incidents in Philadelphia and elsewhere in the last year.

Two New Tang reporters said they were barred in August from covering a SARS benefit concert in Massachusetts attended by a Chinese diplomat. The station said Chinese officials blocked another reporter from covering Premier Wen Jiabao's visit to the White House in December.

"This is a pattern," said Frank Xie, another Philadelphia reporter for New Tang, adding that China's policy of controlling the media "has kind of been exported overseas."

In the last year, Sun said, a New Tang cameraman was blocked from two Philadelphia events attended by the Chinese consul general in New York, Liu Biwei. The station's crew was almost evicted by Chen at Mayor Street's inaugural ball, she said.

The Chinese government has denounced New Tang as a propaganda tool for Falun Gong, which it outlawed in 1999.

The movement's leader, a former grain bureau clerk named Li Hongzhi, accused Beijing of imprisoning and killing hundreds of his followers in a rare televised appearance on New Tang. Carrie Hung, a spokeswoman for the 24-hour TV station, said it is entirely independent of Falun Gong.

"The Chinese government is trying to link us with the Falun Gong because of our courage," she said. "We believe if we don't report on this movement it's the same as not reporting on the Martin Luther King or Gandhi movements."

The station, started in 2002, runs about 50 news bureaus worldwide, half in the United States. It aims to be "the Chinese PBS," Hung said, with a staple of news, English classes, cultural variety and children's shows in Mandarin and Cantonese. Locally, WYBE-TV (Channel 35) airs one hour of that news every evening at 5:30. The entire range of programming is available by satellite to subscribers.

The station claims 50 million viewers worldwide, including some in China who have stashed tiny satellite dishes called "little ears" inside their homes and have bought decoders to unscramble New Tang's satellite signals, encrypted by Beijing.

But according to China experts, Beijing's censoring arm extends far beyond its borders. It heavily influences the content of newspapers and television programs for Chinese living abroad, and its diplomats regularly bar the few reporters who are independent from covering events in the United States.

"This happens a great deal," said Arthur Waldron, an international-relations professor at Penn. "It is being practiced under our very noses in a rather sinister way."

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