It is ironic that for years, farming households in out-of-the-way places like Anhui province were able to watch more television channels than people in the coastal cities. The authorities pushed the cable networks through the cities in the late 1990s with the express aim of discouraging people from installing satellite "woks" as they are so aptly known in Chinese. And it is true that there are dozens of channels available on cable TV in Beijing and Shanghai.
But the list does not include foreign stations – apart from in Guangdong where limited landing rights have been granted to 10 foreign channels, including Viacom's MTV Networks as well as Xingkong Weishi and Phoenix, News Corp-owned and part-owned respectively.
In the mountains of southern Anhui, even poor farmhouses have a satellite dish, often sitting in the farmyard next to the pigsty, propped up with a couple of bricks. They watch the national Chinese satellite channels, but also enjoy Phoenix and other Hong Kong and Taiwan TV fare. And if their English is up to it, there's also HBO, CNN and a wealth of other international programming.
The result is that in the past year, the authorities have been stringing wires around the mountains and insisting that farmers take down the satellite dishes and install cable. The cable network often delivers only a dozen or so channels – CCTV's output together with a few provincial channels. If they don't, they risk having the "satwok" confiscated.
But in the cities, things are more complicated. I am right now looking out at a vista of southeastern Beijing, and while I can see satellite dishes on the roofs of several office buildings and government offices, there appear to be none at all on the wide sweep of apartment blocks beyond.
On the other hand, I see more and more satwoks on buildings big and small in Shanghai. I get text messages on a reasonably regular basis from people offering to install a satwok unit for me in my home, giving me access to worlds of unapproved international entertainment for nothing more than a reasonable set-up fee.
There is a view that the authorities recognize the inevitability of full access, both to satellite TV and the Internet, and that the measures taken are simply to slow down and smooth out the inevitable transition. I would guess that is correct. But for the peasants of Anhui, it simply means it's getting harder and harder to keep up with The Simpsons and The West Wing.
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