Radio Free Asia: Costly, Counterproductive

China needs jobs, time, and a rising middle class - not radio provocation - to erase human rights woes

By , a professor of journalism at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, recently returned from a Fulbright program in Beijing.

THE House of Representatives failed last month to restrict trade with China. If successful, the move would have diluted President Clinton's effort to de-link China's ``most favored nation'' status and issues of human rights. But in an earlier move, the House voted a $10 million appropriation to establish Radio Free Asia. Some now hope the Senate will find even more money for RFA.

The Senate should forget about starting Radio Free Asia at all -

and urge House members to do the same. Radio Free Asia will not only be a waste of money, it will bring the opposite of what its backers hope. It will harm efforts for human rights in the countries it broadcasts to.

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Radio Free Asia has been likened to Radio Free Europe, which broadcast news behind the old Iron Curtain. But the analogy with China doesn't hold up. There is no Berlin Wall, no equivalent ``Bamboo Curtain.'' The Great Wall, designed centuries ago to keep people out, now serves to attract tourists from inside China and out.

The China I just lived in for four months, while hardly a model of democracy, was not the closed state I had expected. Chinese people are able to receive Western television programs dubbed in Mandarin. Chinese radio and television offer lessons in English. An exhibit mounted by the municipal government titled ``A Better Beijing in the Year 2000'' promised, among other things, that by the year 2010 Beijingers would be able to receive 50 television channels, both domestic and foreign. Even today, TV antennas sprout from vendors' stalls on the streets of Beijing and boats on the Grand Canal of Suzhou. Satellite dishes don't dominate the skyline, but they are becoming more common. China is now hooked up to the Internet, offering a new computer link to the West.

These changes do not suggest a society shutting its doors.

An even better sign occurred in June when the Chinese press promptly reported China's worst single air disaster - the crash of a flight after takeoff from Xian that killed all 160 aboard. The news appeared on Page 1 of the English-language China Daily and on the first news page of the Chinese-language People's Daily. This is in contrast to delayed reporting of the murder in March of 24 Taiwan tourists in southern China, an event first brought to light when the relatives of the murdered people held a news conference in Taiwan. In between, of course, was the fifth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square incident, which passed virtually unnoticed in Beijing. One could almost hear a collective sigh of relief as a sunny and uneventful June 4 faded into nightfall.

Speaking of the press, China Daily reported almost weekly the announcements of additional joint ventures between China and outside corporations, including Boeing, Anheuser-Busch, Honda, Samsung, Siemens, ABN AMRO Bank, and McDonnell-Douglas Corporation - to name a few. Joint ventures, of which there are now 6,500, bring with them a need for Chinese laws that protect both foreign investments and Chinese investors. In August the Bank of China issued a financial outlook that is praised in news accounts as improving the transparency of the financial system. Joint ventures bring with them higher wages that will help establish China's growing middle class.

The Chinese I have talked to about Radio Free Asia, in both China and North America, believe that the United States should let well enough alone. The Chinese culture, they say, does not encourage rebellion and revolt. The broadcasts that might in some way spark a revolution would be wasted. Besides, these Chinese ask, pointing to Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, do we really want upheaval in China? (I met some Russians glad to be living in Beijing, not Moscow.)

Evolution, not revolution, is the watchword. Chinese citizens see a stable system, albeit a communist one, helping the Chinese reach a point where they can make peaceful changes in their government.

These same Chinese note that mainlanders can listen to Voice of America, BBC, Radio Australia, and Sound of Taiwan. Granted, they carry international news rather than China-oriented news. But it's still news with Western values, not Chinese values.

Of what use, some Chinese ask, is Chinese news against a backdrop of Western values - the kind of news Radio Free Asia offers? The Chinese would see such news as patronizing and condescending toward a culture they value. The government would consider such news as meddling in the internal affairs of the Chinese. The more the US agitates on human rights, the more Beijing will react negatively.

Radio Free Asia is viewed as an agent provocateur, not a news outlet. Compare Radio Free Asia with Radio Marti or TV Marti. Have Cubans risen up to overthrow Castro? (In Cuba it is even possible to get Miami TV channels.)

The US would be better off letting US businesses engender human rights in China by creating more and better jobs and facilitating a more open society. A rising standard of living will raise the standard of human rights, not a US-government financed radio station. Improve human rights in the United States instead. Invest the $10 million here. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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