In the war of ideas between freedom and authoritarianism, the Voice of America (VOA) broadcast program is losing to the voice of communist China – not because Beijing’s message is better but because its strategic vision and will to win surpass Washington’s.
The United States government is unilaterally disarming (through funding and personnel cuts) much of its program of speaking truth to the Chinese people. Meanwhile, the People’s Republic is aggressively expanding its campaign to spread untruths, especially about Western anti-China “plots.” Worse, China’s misinformation now openly targets the American people, as well – and does it from American soil.
Yet the Broadcast Board of Governors, which manages and oversees all US civilian international broadcasting, proposes cutting parts of its radio transmissions to China and Tibet as well as Burma, Laos, and Vietnam. The board plans to eliminate dozens of personnel directly or indirectly involved in local language broadcasts to those countries even as it adds scores of administrative positions despite budget constraints.
The board of governors proposed drastic reductions in its Mandarin radio broadcasts until Congress ordered a halt. It is now reviewing its plans for total elimination of the Cantonese program reaching China’s most dynamic and democratic-leaning population. The rationale was that “audiences...prefer digital and social media.”
By contrast, Beijing recognizes the continuing importance of radio and television to tens of millions of Chinese. The government-controlled China Central Television has just opened a new state-of-the-art broadcast bureau in Washington, D.C. as part of a major overseas expansion aimed at boosting China’s international influence.
CCTV America is now producing news programs in English for an American audience – again, notwithstanding the even greater role of digital and social media in the United States. At the same time, CCTV transmits back to China – on radio and television – Beijing’s official version of news and information from the United States.
China’s official Xinhua News Agency is also expanding its overseas television operations. Known as CNC, the station broadcasts Chinese and English-language channels to almost 60 countries in the West and Asia.
Leaving no communications stone unturned, Beijing is not reluctant to utilize supposedly old-fashioned newsprint as well. It publishes the newspaper China Daily USA and distributes it free in America’s cities. It also produces attractive inserts for leading American newspapers such as The Washington Post.
The Associated Press in Beijing reports that “[t]he expansion aims to counter negative images of China, especially over issues such as human rights, one-party communist rule, and Beijing’s policies in the restive western regions of Xinjiang and Tibet.”
China effectively employs an audacious two-track media strategy, applying soft power abroad and hard power at home. It extends its strategic communications outreach to the outside world, while tightening its grip over speech and expression within China.
It aims to prevent the Arab Spring from inspiring another Beijing Spring – the last was crushed in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. The regime’s fear of its own people reached the point of totalitarian absurdity in May 2011 when whiffs of a “Jasmine Revolution” led it to ban not only public references to the term but even sale of the flower itself.
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).
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.