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Spirit of China’s Tang Dynasty inspires television network
NTDTV thrives despite obstacles
Donna Ware

Hundreds of celebrities from the world of dance, opera, and classical music join to celebrate the Chinese New Year at NTDTV’s New Year Global Gala program, which was watched around the world.

In this age of media mega-mergers, a true David and Goliath story is hard to find – until now. Meet Zhong Lee, the head of two-year young NTDTV. Like the biblical David, Lee is an unassuming man – certainly not someone you’d expect to take on China. And yet, in two years, Lee and the staff of NTDTV have managed to position this station in direct competition with the likes of Chinese government-run stations that broadcast directly from China.

What was the sling shot that NTDTV used to subdue the Goliath? Truth. This independent, non-profit station relies heavily on the dedication and hard work of a largely unpaid group of media professionals who share the same vision. It offers its audience objective, unbiased reporting: in short, the truth.

Volunteer reporter, Julianne Xu, believes that Chinese are “yearning to know the truth.” Xu says she realized that they weren’t getting the truth when she was a middle school student living in Beijing at the time of the 1989 Tiananmen Square student massacre. Xu and her family witnessed what she calls the “war” on Tiananmen Square from the balcony of their apartment in Beijing. A war that China officials claim – and many Chinese citizens believe -- never happened, Xu witnessed with her own eyes. She said she saw three men “fall down in blood.” Until then, Xu says, she only knew war from the movies. According to Xu, the next day, the Chinese media reported that no one was killed on the Square the previous night.

In a more recent incident, Xu, who lives in the U.S., tried to warn her parents of the dangers of SARS. Xu tried to convince them for months about the seriousness of the epidemic that swept through much of Asia and parts of Canada last year. Xu says her father felt that the SARS outbreak in China was “a rumor that America is spreading” and blamed her for “not loving the mother country.” Her father finally believed her, Xu says, when a neighbor was stricken with SARS and taken away. “With all the improvements in China,” says Xu, “this block on information has not improved.” She says that is what prompted her to join the effort to create NTDTV. She and her colleagues believe that Chinese communities deserve to hear the truth and that NTDTV is committed to airing it – the truth about SARS, the truth about Hong Kong’s hotly contested Article 23 legislation, and the truth about the persecution of Falun Gong, to name a few.

A second mission, staffers are quick to point out, is evident in the station’s name: ‘NTDTV,’ which stands for New Tang Dynasty Television. Zhong Lee explains that the Tang dynasty was the most prosperous time in Chinese history. Not only was it prosperous, Lee points out that there was more trade between the East and West than there is today, but the Tang dynasty as a time of exploration, cultural exchange, and religious tolerance.

“The second king during the Tang dynasty was very open minded and allowed different religions,” Lee explains. Christianity was spread in China during that time. According to NTDTV staff, the “New” Tang Dynasty TV is a renaissance of that which made China great.

Detractors of the station paint a different picture, however. Although NTDTV has many supporters, especially among Chinese scholars, the Chinese business community, and dissident groups who don’t have a voice in China, there are those who brand the station and its staff as traitors. They claim that NTDTV is a front for Falun Gong and that its aim is to destroy China. Not so, according to Lee. Staffers acknowledge that many of them practice Falun Gong, but deny that NTDTV is a “Falun Gong” station or that its aim is to destroy China.

When talking to Lee, you don’t get the impression that it is his goal to “slay” China. In fact, most of NTDTV’s staff call China home. Lee says that when he first came to the West, he longed for the Chinese traditions that he grew up with like the New Years celebrations. Lee and the NTDTV staff see the network as a way to share the richness and beauty of Chinese culture with the West and to bridge the gap between the two cultures, which Lee says is a desire beyond profit.

Lee admits that building the station has not been easy. He and his team have met with many obstacles, mostly from the Chinese government, which controls most of the Chinese language media outlets in operation today. Lee says, there are only “two or three global [Chinese language] television stations, and most are government owned.”

John Yu, an American citizen, has experienced the long arm of Beijing while carrying out his job as cameraman for NTDTV. Yu says that while standing in line with others waiting to be admitted to a press event at the White House recently, he and a female reporter from the station where verbally attacked by a man who identified himself as being from the Chinese embassy. Yu says the man tried to shove the female reporter out of the security area of the White House. Afterwards, Yu said, the man spoke with White House press staff and got Yu and the reporter kicked out of the press event. Yu said that he was shocked that the man’s irrational actions had this effect.

“You might think this would happen in another country but you would never imagine this would happen inside the White House,” he said. Yu doesn’t blame the White House because he believes they were told lies by the person from the Chinese embassy. “They try to suppress us. [When] we try to interview people or cover news stories, they try to block us.”

What is Lee’s take on this situation? “We know in China there’s only one voice; we offer a different voice. If you are inside China you get crushed, if you are outside [China] you get interference,” Lee explains. “The reason they fear us is that they fear people will hear that our news is different from theirs. We come under attack because we are independent -- not the mouthpiece of the government -- which is very unique in the Chinese marketplace. It’s free media here; the model is different.”

Lee says that though they are interfered with quit a bit, “we don’t worry about that; we concentrate on what we are here to do.”

Another reason NTDTV comes under attack, according to staffers, is that despite all efforts to crush the station, NTDTV continues to survive and, in fact, to thrive.

The station, which is headquartered in New York, has news bureaus in major cities in the U.S. and around the world. It now broadcasts to North America, Europe, most of Asia, and Australia. To celebrate, the station hosted and broadcast its first Global Chinese New Year Gala. The gala was seen by sold out audiences in New York, Taipei, Toronto, and Paris as well as broadcast around the world.

Tonight, the Gala will conclude with a grand finale at Washington, D.C.’s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Like those before it, the D.C. gala boasts an evening of world class performances. And, like the dynasty for which it is named, NTDTV promises an evening filled with a rich blend of East and West – from the Nutcracker’s Grand Pas De Deux, performed by nationally acclaimed ballet dancers to the return to the stage of the man some call the “Pavarotti of China,” tenor Guamin Guan. The decision to include performers like Guamin Guan in its Global Gala is one that makes staffers especially proud. Guamin Guan was a very popular performer in China until the persecution of Falun Gong began. Then he lost his audience. “[Guan and other performers] lost their homeland, family, and careers because of the persecution. We, at NTDTV, are proud to be able to give them a stage at our gala,” says one staffer.

Zhong and the NTDTV staff seem even more thrilled to be able to produce this gala in the nation’s capitol since the United States is the home of NTDTV. “Where else would we be able to create this type of a station?” asks one volunteer. The Washington, D.C. gala is, in large part, NTDTV’s ‘thank you’ to the people and government of the United States for making the station possible.

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