SHANGHAI — After presiding over the opening of Hong Kong Disneyland last week, Walt Disney Co. President Robert Iger headed straight to Beijing to meet Liu Yunshan, chief of the Communist Party's powerful Propaganda Department.
Disney declined to say what the two men discussed, but it's a good bet that Iger, who will become chief executive Oct. 1, renewed his case for the Disney Channel in China, and that once again he was told to wait. Disney has been waiting since 2003 for a broadcasting license from Beijing so it can air its programs to some of the 340 million homes with cable TV.
Last year, prospects looked good when China moved toward loosening rules on foreign media investments. But in recent months, Liu and other leaders of the Chinese government have clamped down on foreigners' participation in China's burgeoning media industry, declaring last month that they wouldn't allow more foreign television channels and would tighten their grip on the 31 satellite broadcasters in China.
Chinese officials say they want to "safeguard national cultural security." But some analysts believe that the restrictions are aimed at keeping advertising revenue in the hands of state-controlled and domestic media enterprises. Even as Beijing has moved to limit foreign companies, it has encouraged the development of private Chinese media firms.
Disney isn't the only company hindered by the new rules. Viacom Inc.'s Nickelodeon children's channel has been waiting for two years for a broadcasting license. One of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. ventures in China has been shut down. Time Warner Inc., Sony Corp. and others involved in co-production of movies in China now face greater censorship.
These media giants haven't said much about how the rules will affect their investment plans. For the most part, they're "sitting tight, not upsetting regulators and being more patient," said Vivek Couto, an executive director of Media Partners Asia in Hong Kong.
But frustrations are beginning to spill out.
Murdoch, who with his Chinese-born wife, Wendi Deng, has cultivated Beijing over the last decade to become the top Western television company in China, said at a conference Friday in New York that his company had "hit a brick wall" in the Middle Kingdom. In the last year, he said, China has backed away from opening up to foreign news organizations. He called Chinese authorities "quite paranoid about what gets through."
Richard Parsons, Time Warner's chairman, who also spoke at the session organized by former President Clinton, said the Chinese wanted to monitor the traffic and e-mails sent on the Internet. Parsons said that was why he bailed out of a deal to distribute America Online there.
Some industry executives and analysts view the curbs against Western media as part of Chinese President Hu Jintao's broader campaign to head off perceived threats to his rule. Communist leaders have long seen the media as more of a propaganda tool than a commercial enterprise. In recent months, the central government has reined in journalists and cut off Internet forums at some major universities as the Internet has helped to foster criticism of party officials and policies.
The restrictions on foreign media coincide with a changing of the guard at the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, where longtime provincial official Wang Taihua replaced media veteran Xu Guangchun as head of the regulatory body.
Some American media executives also believe that Beijing's tightening reflects the deterioration of U.S.-China relations in the last year.
China's attitude toward Western firms' access to the domestic market has always been one of extreme caution, said Song Jianwu, professor of journalism at Renmin University in Beijing. He noted that when China joined the World Trade Organization four years ago, it made few commitments on opening up the media market to foreigners.
David Wolf, a Beijing-based industry consultant, said the Chinese government might have unintentionally "opened the doors too wide" last year when it allowed new foreign ventures in television production. Wolf expects China to maintain its tougher stance on international media firms for the next 18 months, but after that he thinks China will allow wider foreign participation in its television market for financial reasons and to enhance its image globally.
Others believe that the chill could last until the Olympics in Beijing in 2008. But Chinese leaders also have another incentive to open up the market to foreign investment: They want to convert the entire nation to digital television by 2015, a task that could add hundreds of new channels.
Chinese homes with cable TV currently have access to about 50 channels, for which they pay about $3 a month. Much of the programming is dull -- and propaganda. Many viewers would rather watch pirated DVDs of Hollywood hits and censored TV shows such as "Sex and the City."