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NEW YORK (Reuters) - From its spartan New York City studios, a non-profit organization called New Tang Dynasty Television is trying to change China with a tiny budget, a volunteer staff and a mission to inform a censored nation.
The channel funded largely by donations was founded by practitioners of the Falun Gong spiritual movement but says it has no agenda other than to "bring truthful and uncensored information into and out of China," said Samuel Zhou, the channel's executive vice president.
Shows such as the satirical "Mainland News Dissector," the call-in "Focus Talk" and "China Forbidden News" are beamed to mainland China from a satellite operated by Taiwan's Chunghwa Telecom.
At the same time, New Tang Dynasty is trying to capture the Chinese-American market estimated from 3.8 million to 6 million strong. It broadcasts 24 hours a day over the air and on cable television in markets with large Chinese populations, competing with SinoVision in New York and others who show content largely from official Chinese broadcaster CCTV.
No one knows how much New Tang Dynasty programing gets past Chinese censors. Zhou said he has heard stories of viewers using woks in place of satellite dishes to pick up shows and that about 1 million people in China defeat firewalls to access its website each month, based on unique IP addresses.
"Sometimes I feel it's like little David against Goliath. When Chinese people call us a lifeline, we feel very proud that we can make a difference in people's lives," Zhou said in an interview.
The Chinese government has scared off some of New Tang Dynasty's sponsors and business partners, Zhou said, and experts say the Chinese government is efficient at blocking unauthorized signals.
"They are both vigilant and effective, particularly in the case of television. Not everybody is subject to the same amount of vigilance. But Falun Gong is at the top of the list," said Robert Daly, director of the Maryland China Initiative at the University of Maryland, who was unfamiliar with New Tang Dynasty.
Zhou was eager to play down the channel's connection to Falun Gong, a meditation practice that its proponents liken to Tai Chi and Yoga but one that China has banned and violently repressed as an "evil cult."
"NTD neither teaches the doctrines of, nor attempts to represent the viewpoint of, any belief system," and it practices Western-style journalism, Zhou said.
Zhou said his interest in journalism started with his experience as a student demonstrator at Tiananmen Square in 1989, when he grew outraged at the divergence between the massacre he witnessed and what was reported in state media.
In 2002, long after moving to the United States, he joined like-minded professionals and investors to start what would become New Tang Dynasty in response to September 11, 2001, when some Chinese-language reporting was sympathetic toward the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people.
It functions with a staff of 80, nearly all of them volunteers. Some 3,000 people contributed $2.4 million in 2009, the last year for which an audit is available, accounting for nearly half of the $5.3 million in income for the year.
New Tang Dynasty protects the identity of its donors, though Zhou said to his knowledge Falun Gong leader Li Hongzhi was not one of them.
"For many immigrants who don't speak English, this is only way they can get the news," said David Lee, a political science professor at San Francisco State University. "It's a very difficult environment. Even mainstream television stations are struggling. That's why news of New Tang Dynasty actually expanding goes contrary to the trend."
Reporting by Daniel Trotta; editing by Anthony Boadle