I saw all the stuff on Drudge over the weekend about the big New York Times feature that was supposed to shake Rupert Murdoch's media empire to its core. This article is apparently part of it, and deals with Murdoch's efforts to cultivate a market in China for his TV channels and satellite services. In a nutshell, Murdoch's been sucking up to a bunch of ChiComs for years to make money in the potentially enormous Chinese satellite TV market. Predictably, to do so, Murdoch's had to agree to all sorts of censorship-type things, such as removing BBC News from his Chinese satellite network after the Brits showed some uncomfortable footage from Tiananmen Square, and speaking poorly of the Dalai Lama.
While I understand the knee-jerk reaction to participating in ChiCom censorship and propaganda (it's bad), I think Murdoch may actually be on to something very good. I grant that supporting totalitarian regimes that repress freedom is something to be avoided. However, it's important to "play the long game" (credit to my friend Jason for that phrase) and not forget what we hope to accomplish thirty years from now.
By giving the Chinese leadership the concessions they want, Murdoch is doing something that our pure idealism will never do: reaching the ears of systematically oppressed people. At this point, the West is not going to get free journalism to the Chinese people. However, we might get a sanitized version of our way of life onto their television sets, and that's not a bad thing. Any television controlled by an entity other than the Chinese communist party is a step forward, even if censored.
By courting the favor of the Chinese power structure, Murdoch is doing more than making inroads for his business interests. He's laying the groundwork for liberalized media in a society that has no such thing. If that media starts out with the sanction of the country's leaders, we can expect many in the country to soon have access. In other words, lots of Chinese will be able to watch Murdoch's satellite TV. At first, they'll get news and culture carefully filtered for political reasons. Over time, however, as the system becomes entrenched (imagine how ubiquitous cable TV is for us), it will be increasingly difficult for the communist party to control the content.
In a country as large as China, a satellite TV system with several tens of millions of subscribers would seemingly be impossible to shut down. First, the technology is such that the government couldn't physically shut down the source, but would instead have to confiscate individual dishes from end users. Second, popular sentiment might not prevent censorship, but would be against losing services the people became accustomed to having. Finally, if Murdoch is smart (and he must be), he'll make sure the government gets its share of the profits, and consequently won't be quick to pull the plug on a lucrative high-tech business.
I don't like supporting communism, but sometimes the good fight involves laying with dirty bedfellows. If the only way to reach the oppressed people of China is to play ball with their government, that's the path we have to take. I hope that's where Murdoch's venture goes.