It's been a long haul, but Radio Free Asia is finally on the air. In 1992, a bipartisan commission, appointed by Congress and President Bush, recommended the establishment of a new, government-financed radio broadcasting service to mainland China and other communist countries in Asia. (I was the commission's chairman.) Last week, after four years of political infighting and wrangling over budgets, it happened. Broadcasting the language of freedom, Radio Free Asia is a tender shoot that needs to be nurtured if it is to survive.
The Chinese authorities abhor Radio Free Asia and will probably try to jam it, though they themselves broadcast freely around the world. In the United States, budget-cutters have tried to strangle it by voting inadequate funds. Our commission recommended start-up financing of $30 million, with annual operating costs at $35 to $39 million. Instead, Radio Free Asia will start with $10 million.
Some businesspeople and diplomats have opposed broadcasting to China on grounds that it will "rock the boat." Being nettlesome to China by talking about freedom may hinder investment and diplomacy, they argue.
The Voice of America, the government-owned radio service that does a superb broadcasting job and for which I proudly served as director, has looked with disfavor on the upstart Radio Free Asia on grounds that another shortwave radio voice to China is unnecessary. But the missions of VOA and RFA differ.
Despite all the obstruction, Radio Free Asia went on air, broadcasting 30 minutes a day in Mandarin Chinese. It was heard in such cities in Beijing and Shanghai. In time, broadcasts in Chinese will be extended to five original hours a day, and broadcasts will be beamed to Tibet, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar (formerly Burma) in their native languages.
The hope is that Radio Free Asia will do for Asia what Radio Free Europe did for Eastern Europe. It will broadcast to countries where repression hobbles the operation of full and free domestic news media. It aims to offer the kind of radio service that those countries would have if there were no government censorship.
Where the VOA broadcasts news and stories about the US, the so-called "surrogate" radios specialize in airing news on events inside the closed countries they target. Credibility requires considerable journalistic skill. Radio Free Asia says it will eschew propaganda and follow strict standards of objectivity, fairness, and quality. The radio's president is former ABC and PBS-TV producer Richard Richter, and its vice president in charge of programming is Dan Southerland, a former Christian Science Monitor and Washington Post correspondent in Asia.
The first programs included a piece on US-China trade, a letter from a Chinese student on life in Vermont, and a series of interviews with Beijing writer Dai Qing, a critic of China's huge Three Gorges dam project, on grounds that it will cause major environmental damage. The series explained why it is a citizen's democratic right to make such a criticism. Other programs will carry commentary by journalist Liu Binyan, a former Communist Party official living in exile, as well as readings from books banned in China.
With limited equipment, slender funds, and a small staff, Radio Free Asia faces a mammoth task in its bid to funnel uncensored information to China and elsewhere. Radio Mart, the US's surrogate broadcast service to Cuba, suffered a similarly inauspicious start but became a significant source of information to Cubans.
China is vitally important to the US, and it is in our national interest to engage it and to achieve as civilized a relationship with it as possible. The inauguration of Radio Free Asia is a reminder that part of that dialogue is the expression of US concern over such basic human rights as access to information and ideas - regardless of frontiers.
*John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is director of the International Media Studies program at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.