Written by Raymond Li.

China is the largest media market in the world, and therefore attracts many foreign media companies which flock into the country on the promise of lucrative returns. However, talking about the situation of foreign media in China is not an easy task, because the picture is not always clear cut as it appears to be. Here, I would like to highlight 3 aspects to give you a better understanding of the real situation encountered by foreign media in China, i.e. foreign TV programmes in China, Foreign TV Channels in China and foreign media’s news reporting in China.

Foreign TV programmes in China

First of all, I have some good news for British TV industries. Over last few years, British TV programmes have become increasingly popular in China, thanks to successful promotion by leading video content sites in China. Downton Abbey and Sherlock have tens if not hundreds of millions fans in China. The Chinese version of Britain’s Got Talent will soon start its 6th season under the title China’s Got Talent. Last November, Shanghai’s Dragon TV launched a Chinese version of Top Gear (巅峰搭档).

However, you might be surprised to learn that no foreign media companies have attained official business status in China so far, including BBC Worldwide the commercial arm of the BBC. Although Chinese authorities issued a directive about 10 years ago allowing foreign media companies to apply for setting up a business rep office in China, the reality is no one has got the official approval for their representative offices so far.

More importantly, the availability of foreign TV content in China is always subject to changes of government policies in China. For instance, in April last year, the Chinese regulator banned four American TV drama series; the Big Bang Theory  生活大爆炸, the Good Wife 傲骨贤妻, NCIS 海军罪案调查处,The Practice 律师本色. In September 2014, a further directive decreed that, from April 2015, all foreign TV drama series would have to be sent to the authorities for content approval first before being screened on the video sites. Further, the number of foreign TV programme series shown on video sites can no longer exceed 30% of the total; guaranteeing a dominant place for domestic TV programme series. These new regulatory requirements will undoubtedly affect the appetite of commercial video sites in China for foreign TV programmes.

Foreign TV Channels in China

Right now, around 32 foreign TV channels are allowed to enter the Chinese market, including some news and financial news channels such as BBC World News, CNN, CNBC etc. However, they are largely accessible only in 3-star or above hotels and residential compounds where foreign ex-pats live in. Perhaps the only exception is Guangdong, where foreign TV channels can reach ordinary households in some cities through local cable TV networks.

All the foreign TV channels are monitored by government officials on a 24/7 basis, and the signals are delayed by 30 seconds to one minute. If any content is regarded as politically sensitive, the signals would be blanked out right away. Last December, my colleague at the BBC described a trip to Beijing where news about the protests in Hong Kong resulted in black-outs for the BBC World News channel.

Actually BBC World News TV has been luckier than BBC news websites. In October last year, all BBC websites including BBC News Online were completely blocked in China for about three weeks before becoming accessible again in early November. The BBC did issue a public statement about it but so far we haven’t got any official explanation from Chinese authorities. Meanwhile BBCChinese.com, the Chinese language news site that I am responsible for, has been blocked in China since soon after its launch in November 1999. The only exception last year was when China was hosting the first ever World Internet Congress on November 19-21. During the conference, 1000 delegates and 600 journalists could register with a special Wifi network, with which they could access all the foreign sites, including BBCChinese.com, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube etc. Unfortunately such privileges only lasted for 3 days and the blockage was back to normal afterwards.

Actually even for those English news sites accessible in China, when you try to click the pages of news stories about China, you may not be able to open them if the stories concerned are perceived as politically sensitive ones by the government. Meanwhile, most Chinese language sites from leading international news media including New York Times, Wall Street Journal, BBC etc. are not accessible in China. Earlier this year, Chinese authorities also stepped up its crackdown on overseas based proxy sites which many netizens in China are relying on to get over the Great Firewall.

Foreign media news reporting in China

In early June 2015, dozens of foreign media journalists in China were given unexpected access to the scenes of Yangtze River ship disaster in which more than 400 passengers died. According to the report by a pro-Beijing newspaper in Hong Kong, such rare access was only granted after Chinese Premier Li Keqiang gave his approval. Even in China, only a handful of national media journalists had the privilege of doing so. However, foreign media journalists in China are not always lucky to get the personal blessing of senior government officials for their news reporting activities.

Soon after Beijing Olympics in 2008, Chinese authorities issued new regulations regarding the reporting of foreign journalists in China. The regulations said that foreign media journalists are free to report anywhere in the country apart from some military restricted areas. However, the new rules have never been fully enforced and following the Olympics the situation has steadily deteriorated, as often pointed out by Foreign Correspondents Club of China. On several occasions BBC reporters have been stopped by local police from getting access to the scenes of news events.

The regulations also said that application process for journalist visas would be simplified so that more foreign journalists could go to China to do first hand reporting on the ground, but again the reality is not quite simple as that. For example, when I tried to send a reporter to cover the World Internet Congress in China, I was told that only those who had received an invitation from the organizers would be allowed to apply for the required accreditation.

In fact, in last three or four years, BBC Chinese only managed to send reporters into China three times because of these restrictions, although it is fair to say that my colleagues in BBC News and English language content production units have much better treatment as far as journalist visas concerned. In conclusion, there are certainly more market opportunities for foreign media companies in China, but at the same time, there are also more daunting challenges for foreign media companies to get into the Chinese market and make the kind of impact they want to have. It is unlikely that this situation will change in near future.

Raymond Li is BBC Chinese Editor. Image credit CC by Rachelle Lucas /Flickr.