At the end of last year, the Chinese government sentenced Zhang Shanguang to 10 years in jail for providing information to Radio Free Asia (RFA) on labor protests inside China. The charge: providing intelligence to a foreign organization.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Banzao announced to the press that RFA is an enemy radio station - "that interferes at will with the internal affairs of Asian countries."
Chinese leaders themselves can freely be interviewed by foreign media. Yet ordinary people like Zhang Shanguang are severely punished for giving RFA news of such events as workers' and peasants' protest. Where is justice?
For years, the Chinese government has tenaciously sabotaged news reporting by its "strategic partner," the US. Beijing dispatches agents to Western countries to publish newspapers and set up radio and TV stations to "direct public opinion" in favor of Beijing. It spreads its own ideological propaganda through the Internet. Yet when US media such as RFA penetrate China's jamming in order to let Chinese people know the truth, Beijing calls it "interference with internal affairs." Yet the more the Chinese government tries to kill a piece of news, the more the audience is eager to know about it.
Curious Chinese listeners will try their best to understand what on earth has made the Chinese government so fearful of RFA. For a fledgling station, just three years old, this achievement of "notoriety" with the Chinese government is indeed rare. And it's a good opportunity for RFA to advance its mission.
RFA's professional mission was once explained by its president, Richard Richter, this way: "Like the standard of all other news organizations, ours is to focus on those authoritarian states that deny the free flow of information. Our radio waves shall penetrate the strong walls of news censorship, provide listeners in mainland China, Tibet, Burma, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and North Korea with fair and objective news reporting."
RFA should immediately request concerned US agencies to negotiate with the China to send a correspondent to Beijing and to deny China's official news reporters visas to the US, or even expel them from the US if American reporters are denied visas to China or are expelled.
The US should push for an early release of Zhang Shanguang. And RFA should establish a special fund to specifically help those in China who are persecuted simply because they've provided news to RFA or other overseas media.
It is wise for RFA to stick to its principles of professional journalism. But any hope that Beijing will recognize RFA as a professional radio station is unrealistic and futile. We should make extra effort to fulfill exactly what RFA's mission dictates: to join hands with all who agree with promoting China's press freedom. Only when press freedom comes to China will RFA be recognized by China. But by the time that becomes reality, RFA may well have fulfilled its mandate.
*Zhang Weiguo, a visiting scholar at the graduate school of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, is an independent contributor to Radio Free Asia and editor of The New Century Net web site, a Chinese language online magazine.