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BEIJING — China has appointed a new chief media monitor at the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, the body that must approve all Hollywood imports, the official Xinhua News Agency reported Friday.
The change in chief administrator of SARFT, which answers directly to the State Council, the cabinet of the one-party central government, comes as China is expected to open its doors wider to foreign participation in its booming but closely-guarded media marketplace.
SARFT tapped Cai Fuchao, a 60-year-old Beijing deputy mayor and chief propagandist for the capital city, to replace Wang Taihua, during whose six-year tenure China’s market for movies in particular has grown faster than any other in the world.
Last year, China said that by March 19, 2011, it would make strides toward allowing greater foreign participation in the distribution of copyrighted cultural content. That deadline was set after a Dec. 2009 ruling by the World Trade Organization on a complaint by the United States and backed by the Motion Picture Association of America.
SARFT enforces an annual limit of 20 imported films allowed to repatriate a share of the box office revenues they generate in China, and it demands that all imports be funneled through the state-run China Film Group, the country’s sole licensed importer of movies for theatrical release. SARFT also strictly limits television imports, barring most from appearing in primetime, and governs participation by non-Chinese in the ownership of media companies operating in China.
Cai became Beijing deputy mayor in January 2008, just before the Chinese capital hosted the Summer Olympics, which were widely regarded as a success. Cai takes the helm at SARFT as multiple rumors fly about what exactly the senior leadership will do to make China become WTO-compliant in the media sector.
Xinhua’s report said Cai would take the lead in China’s ongoing attempts at “triple play” network convergence, the streamlining of its broadcast sector through the digitalization of television and the merging of its oversight with that of the Internet and mobile sectors. The Xinhua report said nothing about China’s WTO compliance, nor did it mention the rules for imported content as a part of Cai’s mandate from the State Council.
A report on Web portal Tencent described Cai’s appointment as “routine personnel handover.” It noted that Cai had long been a participant “in the control of news reports and ideology.” Other local media news reports said that since 2008, Cai, a former deputy chief editor at the Beijing News newspaper, had led the switchover from analog to digital television in the capital and nationwide.
Since 2004, outgoing SARFT chief Wang seldom made public statements, leaving media professionals to guess which way the wind was blowing as the country’s top leadership struggled to shape China’s image in the world media and shelter the general populace from what some conservatives call polluting foreign influences.
In the absence of the arrival of a long-awaited film law for China, SARFT’s Film Bureau has ruled over the movie business with often vaguely-worded circulars published to its website.
Clarity in China’s media marketplace is in ever-greater demand, growing with citizens’ thirst for a greater variety of entertainment. Last year, gross theatrical box office receipts grew 64% to hit $1.5 billion, driven up by newfound spending power in a swelling middle class.
Avatar, for instance, grossed more at China’s box office ($204 million) than in any market outside the U.S. and holds the record, by an order of magnitude, for China’s No. 1 all time biggest box-office hit.
Meanwhile, China’s television audience, its number of Internet users and number of mobile subscribers are each the largest in the world. Overseas companies wishing to reach Chinese consumers must pay attention to SARFT, and now to Cai.
Cai was formerly head of the Publicity Department of the Beijing Municipal Committee of the Communist Party of China, in effect, the capital’s chief censor below the Cabinet.
Next weekend, China’s Cabinet will begin to reveal the country’s next five-year plan in the theater of the National People’s Congress, the country’s largely rubber-stamp parliament.
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