Beaming In The Lord, Illicitly (Q&A)

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On April 9, at 22:20:51 Beijing time, your correspondent received the following SMS in shorthand Chinese from an anonymous sender:

“…Hotels and neighborhood homes can pick up Christian Bible stations, Phoenix, HBO, CNN, adult and other satellite programs. Anti-surveillance system and cable installation. Equipment sales. Text reply to 81607635.”

At first glance, it seemed just another sketchy solicitation. Mobile phone spam, after all, is the daily dump of China’s telemarketing world. Illegal satellite TV offers are equally regular. Back in the 1990’s, city authorities ran routine sweeps of TV dishes pulling overseas feeds in to private homes and offices. But today, underground rackets thrive. Week after week, they flyer the same high rises. Residents find checklists slipped under their doors offering several packages of overseas channels. One widespread feed is pirated out of the Philippines, another out of Taiwan. The cost of initial installation – a box and a small dish – can be as low as 1500 yuan. Your correspondent himself gets the Filipino feed at home. The dish is visible from the 2nd Ring Road. In three years, no one has said a word about it. So illegal pay TV clearly is not seen as the forbidden window to the outside world it once was. Not in the age of instant news over the Internet. Besides, millions more Chinese now get many of the same stations legally, anyway. The provider is state-owned ChinaSat, the government platform in high-end apartments, offices and hotels. It carries Phoenix, HBO, CNN, BBC, and much more.

But one genre it does not broadcast is Christian TV…

What was curious about this SMS offer was way in which the solicitor phrased the pitch. “Christian Bible station, Phoenix, HBO, CNN, adult.” In that order. One might have expected just the opposite.

The notion of televangelism as a top attraction to Chinese audiences was indeed one to behold. Perhaps it was speaking to the growth of Hong Kong, Taiwan and Korean home buyers in the big cities and surrounding suburbs. But it also intimated a surge in house churches of well-to-do mainland urbanites.

Your correspondent had a vision. In it, grownup Chinese viewers were glued to “Sister Angelica Live” on EWTN, the Global Catholic Network. Later on, their pubescent teens would be tuned in to JCTV – the MTV of Jesus Christ‚Äì where the music videos are still deemed sacred and on reality shows rockers discuss matters of music: fire-and-brimstone metal, for instance, once demonized for being too hard. As for the little ones, they’d be plopped in front of the tube watching action fantasies on Smile of a Child, like “Bibleman”. The program menu on the Filipino feed describes this show thus: “Bibleman’s spectacular battles against the flamboyant villains of Darkness are an exciting way to introduce your children to the Bible and the power of God’s Word.”

Bibleman before Pokemon? Your correspondent was not convinced. So in search of truth, he called the number of the SMS sender a few days after. It was out-of service. Then he tried the number advertised in the ad. It worked.

One Mr. Zhang, an amicable chap, answered the phone. He fielded Biganzi’s questions without a hint of hesitation.

Biganzi: I noticed in your SMS you advertised the Christian stations?

Zhang: Yes. Especially the Chinese language channel from Taiwan. A lot of people here are really want looking for it, but they don’t know how to get it. It’s called hao xiaoxi. Good TV (•ΩÊ∂àÊÅØË°õÊòüÈõªË¶ñÂè∞). It’s from Taiwan.

B: Would you say the Christian channels are your biggest selling point?

Z: Maybe not the biggest. Phoenix might be the biggest. But demand for the Christian channels is pretty big.

B: I’ve noticed that even when all the other channels are jammed, the Christian channels are fine. Why is that?

Z: That’s because they don’t add encryption their signal. So there’s no code to descramble

B: Why? Because they want to spread the gospel?

Z: I suppose so. They hope that everyone can watch.

B: What about this TV service you’re selling? How many people in China do you think watch it, I mean illegally? A few million? Ten, twenty million?

Z: Not only. I think more.

B: Really?

Z: I don’t know. There are no statistics.

B: What about you personally? How many customers?

Z: I’d say I’ve got several hundred, at least.

B: The market must be quite fragmented, then.

Z: Yeah, it is.

B: That must make it hard to regulate.

Z: Maybe. If you have questions about statistics, maybe you should ask the company in Taiwan. The name is [correspondent’s notes illigible].

B: The regulation seems very lax. Why do you think that is?

Z: It is rather loose. Even I don’t really understand.

B: Someone on the inside must be making a profit or something.

Z: Yeah. Possible.

B: Tell me more about Good TV. I have the Filipino satellite signal, so I don’t get that station. What’s it like? Any Christian rock videos?

Z: I don’t really watch it. There’s a lot of preaching, that’s all I know. There’s a big church organization behind it. Do you want the configurations for it? That way you can receive it.

B: Sure. Do you have them?

Z: Yeah. Got a pen? Ready?

B: Go ahead.

Z: The frequency is 12253 [MHz]. The polarization is ‘Aquarius’ (Ê∞¥Âπ≥). And then there’s the sampling rate, which is 2400 [kS/s].

The call ended, and your correspondent made a beeline for the TV. He picked up the clicker and input the designated configurations for Good TV.

He is still waiting, as of this writing, to receive a signal.

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