VoA Chinese Radio/TV: Something has to Give

The US government’s goal is to cut US$ 1.1 trillion from its deficit over the next decade. Part of the package is to cut the Voice of America‘s (VoA) Chinese service on radio and television by October this year. All these measures concerning VoA’s Chinese radio and television services would save about 8 million US-$ out of VOA’s $207 million budget.

VoA leaflet, October 1989: "Watching the Kettle Boil"

VoA leaflet, 1989: "Watching the Kettle Boil"

Contrary to the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) explanations, the “Voice” would, most probably, lose many listeners. After all, if 400 million Chinese people are on the (heavily censored) internet, most Chinese people are still no “netizens” at all.

S. Enders Wimbush, chairman of the BBG’s Strategy and Budget Committee, defended the decision during a hearing in the U.S. Congress on new technologies Tuesday.
He said the audience for shortwave in China over the past few years has been barely measurable, while the country is now the largest Internet-using society in the world. He said the shortwave mission was being shifted to Radio Free Asia (RFA), also supervised by the BBG, which will now be able to operate on better frequencies and with better time slots.

Leninists know better. “Radio is the newspaper without paper and distances, which can’t be confiscated by customs officers, or banned by censors”, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin reportedly once said.*)

The internet is better than a newspaper, when censors have something against your message. But when it comes to China, it isn’t as good as radio. On shortwave, VoA

has a much wider audience and larger reach that will be sharply curtailed by the shift to the Internet because many Chinese in rural areas or regions facing central government punishment do not have access to the Internet or cell phones,

as the Washington Time’s Bill Gertz points out.

To assess the audience, the BBG can’t rely on Chinese listeners’ responses. Many of them will only listen, and never react to the broadcasts (i. e. write a letter). Another reason to think again is that the VoA has carried broadcasts in Chinese since 1942. That has made the station an authority on the airwaves which shouldn’t be recklessly dumped. Radio Free Asia, which is expected to remain on shortwave, won’t attain a similar standing.

Current and former officials state some important points which need to be taken into consideration – such as the internet blackout in Xinjiang, in July 2009.

According to a Taipei Times report, the VoA’s Mandarin service had been under political pressure in recent years.

[..] employees discovered that the pressure from management, which on certain occasions resulted in self-­censorship, was the direct result of a sustained campaign of complaints from Chinese diplomats, the Taipei Times’ Michael Cole quotes an unnamed source.

The state of America’s public finances is serious, and there can be no sacred cows in the negotiation process between the US administration and Congress. A negotiation process, after all, it is. The Voice is close to the Republicans’ and some more conservative Democrats’ hearts. Besides, the BGG’s official website doesn’t even seem to carry information about the cutting plans yet – and their explanations through other media sound so lame that I can’t help but feel that the reverend broadcaster is simply held hostage by the US administration.

If the Voice’s Chinese radio and tv services are to stay, something else will have to give.


*) attributed to Lenin by German news magazine Der Spiegel, No. 13, 1984, page 163.


CRI almost doubled its short-wave output, Economist, Aug 12, 2010
Go, tell it from Global Local Sticks TV, October 22, 2009

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