Does China want foreign media partners or not?

Executives at some of the world’s top media companies were left confused this week following contradictory remarks by Zhu Hong, a senior official in the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, China’s film and TV watchdog.

Zhu, SARFT general office director, said Beijing was not planning to halt new foreign investment in film and TV production companies and remained committed to opening up the biz.

“China will stick to the opening and reform policy in the broadcasting, film and TV industry,” Zhu told the official Xinhua news agency, speaking on the sidelines of a conference in Beijing.

Zhu had been quoted by the Financial Times earlier this month as saying that government policy in China had changed to “temporarily not approve the creation of new joint companies.”

However, Zhu said this view “distorted the fact and was wrong.” He insisted there was no change in policy.

“China’s broadcasting, film and TV industry is experiencing a deep reform, which involves unprecedented areas and far-reaching effects. The reform also provides strategic opportunities for China’s broadcasting, film and TV industry,” said Zhu.

Chinese “reform” is a vague concept for foreign media firms used to more straightforward messages.

The widely expected expansion of China’s TV market, on the back of technological changes, requires more foreign input on content and technology.

But firms trying to make their way in the potentially enormous market often complain that a lack of clarity on regs makes business tricky.

And the Communist Party will not allow any foreign input into politically sensitive areas of broadcasting, such as news.

In recent years Beijing has tightened restrictions on foreign involvement in the media to boost local firms and to keep a tight grip on content.

In 2004, the government limited foreign holdings in film and TV production joint ventures to no more than 49%.

Some restrictions have eased, though many seem aimed at opening up the mainland market for Hong Kong’s film and TV industry.

This month the government imposed controls on all so-called network music imported into the country and requires that all online music be registered with the Ministry of Culture.

The guidelines also forbid the establishment of foreign-funded firms offering network entertainment services, while other businesses working with online music must seek approval from the ministry.

This lack of clarity has led to high-profile casualties. In November, Warner Bros. pulled out of its ventures to open cinemas in China due to changes in regulations.