TIME Television

Yang Lan, the ‘Oprah of China,’ Expands Her Reach

Yang Lan
Yang Lan at a benefit on May 15, 2013, in New York City. John Lamparski / WireImage / Getty Images

Yang Lan is partnering with MAKERS to bring the women's-stories platform to China

Correction appended June 23, 2014, 4:45 p.m.

Last year, MAKERS — the AOL-owned hub for women telling the history of feminism via their personal stories — made news with a PBS documentary. Now it’s going global.

MAKERS and AOL announced in April that they partnered with Sun Media Group to bring the initiative to China. This weekend, TIME premiered 10 of those stories, about women as diverse as an LGBT rights activist and an expert in traditional Chinese dance.

Though she’s not a subject of one of those videos, there’s one important Chinese woman whose story is in the subtext of all the others. That’s Yang Lan, a woman often referred to as “China’s Oprah.” She’s a co-owner of Sun Media, and serves as Executive Producer for MAKERS China. Though American audiences may be unfamiliar with her, the Oprah comparison doesn’t necessarily go far enough. Her personal and business reach is Oprah-like but on a Chinese-population scale — her own social-media account reaches 50 million people a day — and her TV personality is more in the Barbara Walters mold, with a serious interview show called One-on-One and a The View-style panel show, Her Village, which is also a supersized web platform. The latter reaches 300 million people a month between TV and online content. Her Village‘s website will be the distribution platform for MAKERS China; as a point of comparison, 2.6 million people watched the PBS documentary when it premiered.

“The Chinese Internet is developing at a breathtaking pace,” Lan tells TIME, noting that the urban/rural gap in broadband access has not held true for mobile Internet, with the result that there are more than 600 million mobile Internet users in China, which is about half of the population. “It’s opening a new area for us because we are a private media company while all the TV networks are highly regulated and government-owned. Suddenly the internet gave us this open space to reach our audience directly with no barrier in-between.”

So it’s not just that Internet usage is growing. Lan says that she the foreign fascination with Chinese censorships is fair — it’s a topic that often comes up when she appears in Western media, and she says that the attention is a good thing because it provides an incentive “to move China forward” — but that the full picture of life as a media mogul in China is a lot more nuanced than it might seem. She explains that, for instance, her company produces Her Village but the TV station is government-owned and can just choose not to show something. However, there are different “levels of censorship” and the Internet is more relaxed. “Nowadays for example when some part of my television show cannot be broadcast on television because of the censorship,” she says, “I can get the full version on the Internet.”

Lan’s insight and influence were crucial to helping MAKERS China happen. Exporting the American version with American producers and slotting in Chinese women and Chinese stories wouldn’t be the same thing, says McGee. “That’s a completely different experience from having [Lan's] team make them from a Chinese perspective,” she says. Though she and Lan both stress that MAKERS and MAKERS China share their goals and values — and an emphasis on stories of courage, breaking through, being true to yourself and giving back to the community — there are differences between what the two audiences expect.

Take, for example, “leaning in.” Though it’s still the catchphrase of the moment for a lot of MAKERS-style feminism in the U.S., it doesn’t quite jibe with the Chinese experience. “In the case of Chinese women some of them were pushed in,” Lan explains. “When Mao Zedong said women should work, “holding up half of the sky,” suddenly every woman worked. For my mother’s generation, that was the case. Nowadays it’s all about free choice. What I always try to emphasize is if it’s based on your true love, your true passion, your true talent and your free choice, being a full-time housewife is just as challenging and respectable as being a woman CEO.”

And the number of people poised to hear that message, and the message of MAKERS, is about to get even bigger: Lan tells TIME that she’s expanding Her Village from a weekly TV show to a daily show, and — perhaps more significantly — launching an app version within the next few months.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the relationship between AOL and MAKERS. AOL owns MAKERS.

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