SALON Daily Clicks: Newsreal

Published February 20, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

the death of Deng Xiaoping, announced in Beijing Wednesday, set off a frenzy of Western speculation on the future of China. Deng, who died at the age of 92, emerged as China's "paramount leader" after a power struggle following Mao Zedong's death in 1976. The Stalinism of Mao's regime was replaced slowly by Deng with economic reform and an opening up to the Western world.

Will his death reverse that course? Is China in for a renewed period of instability? Salon talked with Ramon Myers, a China scholar at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and author of a new book on Taiwan, "The First Chinese Democracy," to be published in September by Johns Hopkins Press.

Does Deng's death matter?

No. He's been out of it for five years. It's not like Mao's death, when a power struggle was already raging and there was a lot of unhappiness in the country.

So we shouldn't expect a struggle to replace the "paramount leader"?

No. The present leadership has been in place for five years now. They have a clear sense of where socialism should go and how to build it, much of it based on Deng's writings. It's a collegial and collective board of directors with one man who acts as kind of coordinator and consensus builder. His name is Jiang Xemin. His health is good and he intends to be around for a few more years.

So no unrest in the streets?

No. The people as far as I know are quite satisfied with the leadership and they like where the country is going in terms of opening up and modernizing, and gradually improving the living standards. That doesn't mean that things will be stable for years and years and years. I'm saying that only in the next couple of years will the leadership be able to hold things together. But when it is either challenged by big events and problems within the country, or involving international tensions, with, say, the U.S., the leadership may divide and factions may form, and then China would be in dire trouble.

Do you see any signs of that on the horizon?

No, not yet. I know of nobody that senses that there are fissures or splits evolving in the leadership yet.

Do you foresee an upsurge in pro-democracy activities?

No. They've got all the dissidents under control. The universities are tightly regimented. The intellectual marketplace is carefully surveyed. There's ferment and change ongoing, but not enough to coalesce into any kind of significant opposition movement.

Will Deng's repression of the democracy movement at Tiananmen Square be his biggest legacy?

Certainly it angered the West, although Deng had to do that for internal reasons; he couldn't continue to let the situation slip out of hand like it was. But he's really going to be remembered, and he already is being remembered by historians who are rewriting the whole Communist era now, for basically legitimizing Communist rule, at least for another few years.


By introducing a certain amount of freedom of the marketplace, promoting people on the basis of talent and trying to upgrade the productive forces of society.

So, in your view, was he in the final analysis a positive force in China?

Yes. His was a very pragmatic, sensible, outward-reaching approach. He integrated China into the world economy and the international order. Of course, there are a lot of horror stories that are going to keep coming out that show just how bad things were. That is one thing that China will have a tough time with: taking care of these ghosts in the closet.
Feb. 20, 1997


The digital revolution will change everything about television and computers. Unfortunately, your old set will have to go.


television is about to undergo a revolution. By next year, new high-definition TV sets will go on sale in the United States, providing pictures on hundreds of channels that are sharper and crisper than anything we've seen to date. And because the new TVs will use digital technology, rather than the old analog, the new sets also will be able to double as home computers, providing us with access to the Internet, as well as other services. This won't be optional: You'll have to buy a new set by 2005, whether you like it or not.

Aware of digital television's potential, and the billions of dollars at stake, the U.S. government has very much gotten in on the act. The Federal Communications Commission holds the licenses, which it will begin awarding to television broadcasters in April. Vice President Al Gore and FCC Chairman Reed Hundt have said a commitment to some public interest programming should be a condition for receiving licenses. "These digital licenses should not be given out unless and until there is an absolutely clear, quantifiable and meaningful commitment to serve the public interest," Hundt said. Others, like Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, say licenses should simply go to the highest bidder.

With the face of television about to literally change, Salon talked with Joel Brinkley, author of "Defining Vision: The Battle for the Future of Television" (Harcourt Brace, 402 pages), which examines the impact of this new technology and recounts the high-stakes international struggle to develop and control it.

Americans may be in for a bit of a shock when they learn about the changes that are in store for them with digital television.

For one thing, everyone is going to have to buy a new TV set. When the FCC finally adopted the digital TV standard a few weeks ago it was one of those rare government acts that affects every single American. Because every TV in every home in the United States of America, in the not-too-distant future, will stop working. Every TV station on the air today will go off the air and go dark. Every single person in the United States is going to have to buy a digital television or a converter box in order to watch television.

How soon?

By 2005. That's when the transition period for switching from analog to digital television is over. By then, every American is expected to have bought a new digital TV. The original analog channels will be turned off, go dark and returned to the government for other uses.

And these new digital channels will be ready to go?

Yes. Back in 1992, when the FCC recognized that digital television was coming, the government loaned every TV station in the country a second channel for a period of 15 years. During that period, all the stations were to continue broadcasting conventional analog programming on their original channels while preparing new digital programming on the second channel. The only change is that the transition period has been shortened.

How much does the government expect to get out of this?

According to Clinton's latest budget, they expect to get $15 billion receipts in the year 2002 from auctioning off the digital channels that are on the air right now.

And what does the viewer get out of it?

For one thing, they'll get stunningly sharp pictures that are almost three-dimensional in feel. But that's almost secondary. Digital TV will turn your TV into a computer. There is functionally and theoretically no difference between a TV and a computer once it becomes digital. You should be able to do everything on your TV that you now do on your computer. And you certainly will see Internet providers using television. TV material coming in through digital television will be a true gusher of data -- 20 megabits per second, which means that you could have Internet downloads 500 times faster than with a 33.6 modem.

And what will we be paying for this privilege?

The manufacturers say the first sets will cost $1,000 to $1,500 more than the equivalent conventional TV. The first ones are going to be so-called home theater models -- 35 inches or larger. And as with all consumer electric products, manufacturers will aim first for the early enthusiasts who are willing to pay that price, and then the price will start to fall. Direct satellite dishes were selling a few years ago for $900. Now they're selling for $200.

I have to throw out my old television. What about my VCR?

For a long time, and perhaps forever, all the new TVs will include both digital and analog receivers. So you will be able to play your VHS video tapes on them, but not in high definition. You'll still be able to use your video cameras. But to record off of digital television, you are going to need a new VCR. Two years ago, the worldwide manufacturers of VCRs agreed on a common standard for digital VCR, so you won't have another Beta-VHS controversy.

Who will reign supreme in the new TV-computer hybrid age -- computer makers or TV manufacturers?

Nobody really knows. This is all still a
frontier. The computer industry is utterly convinced that with digital television, they will begin taking over a good part of the TV market. Last September, Microsoft, Intel, Apple and Compaq raised a real lobbying stink about the Grand Alliance standard; they wanted it modified to make it more compatible with computers. In the resulting compromise, the computer industry said it would start building digital TV receivers into the motherboards of every computer beginning next year. This sets up a real competition between the computer industry and the TV industry for what Andy Grove, the head of Intel, calls "a battle for the eyeballs of America."

My own view is that TV will grow to be more like computers, and computers will grow to be more like TVs. But they will be distinct devices in different rooms, with different core functions. I think the interactive capabilities of television will be used for different purposes. You'll be able to tailor the evening news to watch the kind of programming you want -- an expanded sports report, instead of the weather. Or you could watch the morning news and choose to watch the traffic report for only your route to work. And you'll also certainly see interactive commercials: things like an auto ad, in which you click a box and a map appears showing the best route to the nearest dealer. You could also envision building into the TV a tiny thermal printer. There's a Domino's Pizza ad on the TV, you click on it and the printer spits out a $2 coupon if you order tonight. This is a frontier, and I think you're going to see all kinds of clever stuff.

It won't be "500 channels with nothing on"?

That's the $50,000 question. Instead of offering high-definition programming, the TV stations will be able to offer five standard definition programs in the space now occupied by one. Some of them are excited by this prospect since they can now compete with cable. Others are terrified because they realize they have a hard time filling their single existing channel with worthwhile programming and advertising now. There are a thousand questions like this. We're at the same point of development where personal computers were in 1980, when everybody realized this is a wonderful technology that was going to profoundly affect everybody in the country, but nobody could figure out what the killer application was going to be. This was before spreadsheets were invented, before Quicken and the Web came along. That's where digital television is right now. Lots of people are going to get rich when they figure out what to do with this incredibly powerful medium which is eventually going to be in every home in America. At the moment, it's a great frontier.

By Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

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