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News Corp. Heir Woos China With Show of Support

Media: James Murdoch gives speech backing the Asian nation's handling of Falun Gong and criticizing the West's coverage.

March 23, 2001|EVELYN IRITANI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In what appeared to some to be a blatant effort to curry favor with China, James Murdoch, heir to the News Corp. media empire, called the Falun Gong spiritual movement a "dangerous" and "apocalyptic cult" and lambasted the Western press for its negative portrayal of that giant Asian nation.

Eight years after his powerful father, Rupert, offended officials in Beijing by proclaiming satellite television a weapon to attack "totalitarian" governments, his 28-year-old son demonstrated in a speech this week in Los Angeles just how far News Corp. is willing to go to make amends.

The elder Murdoch has long viewed China as a critical piece of his global agenda. That nation's pending entry to the World Trade Organization promises to crack open a telecommunications sector that is already one of the world's largest and erode tight constraints on an exploding cable and satellite television market.

Speaking at the Milken Institute's annual business conference in Beverly Hills, the younger Murdoch startled even China's supporters with his zealous defense of that government's harsh crackdown on Falun Gong and criticism of Hong Kong democracy supporters.

Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, is a spiritual movement that combines meditation and exercise and was banned by the Chinese government after 10,000 followers staged a protest in Tiananmen Square in 1999.

With his prominent father in the audience, the chairman of News Corp.'s Hong Kong-based Star Group said the spiritual group "clearly does not have the success of China at heart."

After describing himself as "apolitical," Murdoch--whose family's $30-billion corporate empire includes Fox Television, the Dodgers, the New York Post and Star TV, Asia's largest satellite network--also said Hong Kong democracy advocates should accept the reality of life under a strong-willed "absolutist" government.

And the outspoken chief executive didn't spare his own employees, accusing the Hong Kong press and Western newsmagazines of painting a falsely negative portrayal of China through their focus on controversial issues such as human rights and Taiwan.

"I think these destabilizing forces today are very, very dangerous for the Chinese government," he said.

Even those who share Murdoch's sentiments that China's complex political and economic landscape are not well understood abroad were taken aback by his ardent boosterism of the darker side of China's governance.

At one particularly uncomfortable moment in the discussion, Robert Kapp, president of the U.S. China Business Council, felt it necessary to distance himself from Murdoch's blanket endorsement of the Chinese government's record.

"I personally get nailed as being China's best lobbyist," said Kapp, who represents this country's most prominent China business group. "We go to great lengths to explain we are not working for China. We are working for the interests of the American business community."

In Thursday's meeting between Chinese Vice Premier Qian Qichen and President Bush, human rights concerns and Taiwan were high on the agenda. The State Department reports that China has jailed thousands of Falun Gong practitioners and at least 100 have died in prison as a result of neglect or torture.

When told of Murdoch's comments, Patrick Horgan, a Beijing-based technology analyst, said: "I think being a lap dog is something people in certain companies think they have to do but if one can avoid it, one should."

Mike Jendrzejczyk, Washington director for Human Rights Watch Asia, was far less diplomatic: "It's quite appalling he would echo both [the Chinese government's] rhetoric and use the same excuses."

Murdoch's provocative performance offered a revealing glimpse of the next generation of News Corp. leadership when the firm is struggling with massive industry consolidation, the collapse of the dot-com bubble and reports that its negotiations to buy the U.S.-based DirecTV Inc. satellite television company have stalled.

Though the founder shows no signs of slowing, his advanced age has kept the succession rumor mill alive for several years. Eldest son Lachlan is the reputed heir apparent. But James, a Harvard dropout, was given the job of heading up the firm's prominent China initiative just a few years after joining the family company. Their sister, Elisabeth, left News Corp. last year to set up her own media company.

To those familiar with News Corp.'s torturous path into the China market, the younger Murdoch's comments presented a striking contrast to the fateful remarks uttered by his father. In a speech made shortly after he acquired Star TV in 1993, the elder Murdoch declared satellite television an "unambiguous threat to totalitarian regimes everywhere."

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