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Opinion

Why Voice of America is losing to voice of communist China – at home and abroad

With funding and program cuts, Washington is crippling the truth-telling Voice of America broadcasts in China. Meanwhile, Beijing is aggressively expanding its media campaign to spread untruths – broadcasting from American soil. America can't afford to let the VOA go silent.

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The sad irony is that the VOA governing board's retreat from a vigorous defense of free expression in China and elsewhere comes in the midst of the Czech Embassy’s months-long observance of the work of the late Vaclav Havel on behalf of political and religious freedom around the world. Havel championed, among other reform advocates, the causes of Nobel Peace Laureates Dalai Lama, Liu Xiabo, and Aung San Suu Kyi. The first two have been persecuted by China and the third by its erstwhile ally Myanmar (Burma).

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Havel often related how the broadcasts of Radio Free Europe (RFE) and VOA helped sustain him and his fellow political prisoners of “the nightmarish power” during long years of communist oppression. A leading Belarus dissident and protégé of Havel recently expressed the same appreciation to RFE and VOA for their moral support during his own prison ordeal.

Yet the broadcast operations of RFE, Radio Free Asia, Radio Liberty, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks – which all presently reach the ears of oppressed peoples – are also targeted for the governing board's constriction.

The cutbacks in broadcasts to China are particularly ill-advised at a time when the world’s leading authoritarian system is undergoing a leadership transition, with significant contention between reformers and hardliners. Communist Party Premier Wen Jiabao has warned, yet again, that China cannot continue its economic progress without political reform – even as the regime tightens the screws on political dissent.

The crackdown includes strict limits on the amount of American television entertainment programs allowed on Chinese television. President Hu Jintao, once touted as a non-ideological reformer, says the censorship measures are needed to foil a Western scheme of cultural subversion:

“We must clearly see that international hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of Westernizing and dividing China, and ideological and cultural fields are the focal areas of their long-term infiltration.”

Straight news and information from VOA and RFA to China, let alone VOA’s promulgation of American values, are completely prohibited, and their broadcasts are routinely jammed – but they still manage to pierce the bamboo curtain. In my many appearances on VOA, there are always more callers than the program can handle in an hour. They often express their appreciation at receiving the shortwave radio signal even when the television picture is mangled and the Internet is shut down.

It is mystifying that America would divert resources from the one communications medium that the Communist Party cannot completely or permanently block. The audience that clearly welcomes that decision is not the people of China but the People’s Republic of China.

Joseph A. Bosco served in the office of the secretary of Defense as a strategic communications officer from 2002-2004 and as China country desk officer from 2005-2006.

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