International Shortwave Broadcasting, “Stuff of the Past”?

1. Deutsche Welle Reshuffle, Update

An open letter by former Deutsche Welle (Voice of Germany) editorial journalists, published on several Chinese commenting threads previously, has been picked up by the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, within an online flyer dated April 1. Similar to the lawyer of a former freelance journalist with the Chinese service, the open letter – signed by four former editorial journalists – draws a link between current reshuffles and a controversy in 2008 between the Voice, Chinese dissidents, and intellectuals who sided either with the broadcaster’s Chinese service, or the dissidents, and which led to a hearing in one of Germany’s federal parliament’s commissions.

Unfortunately, the open letter’s approach doesn’t seem to be of much help to make the latest events more transparent. An interview reportedly conducted by an intern, scripted by the Chinese service’s former deputy manager, and with exactly this former deputy manager as the interviewee, turns into “an occurence” where the latter had

tried to react to harsh allegations from a Chinese dissident who lived in the United States, in an in-house interview on the Chinese service’s website. The displeasure it caused at the Deutsche Welle management led to the personnel decision described above.

The Deutsche Welle refusal to publish an expert opinion by Ulrich Wickert, completed in February 2009, which had found accusations of slanted  coverage completely unfounded, is supposed to avoid another flare-up of the “China debate”.

But there is no need to make assumptions. Deutsche Welle director Erik Bettermann himself had told the Süddeutsche Zeitung exactly that – he didn’t want to “revive the China debate again”. The open letter makes the management’s approach appear secretive, even where it is stated explicitly.

The Neue Rheinische Zeitung’s publication of the open letter provides a link to a Bettermann statement, concerning increasing cooperation between the Voice and domestic radio stations. The federal government, as quoted by Bettermann, believes that this cooperation could lead to “further quality improvement at justifiable costs”. The Voice needed to do its share in balancing the federal budget. Radio Netherlands‘ website quoted Bettermann as saying that the adoption of a new structure would affect the number of employees by 2014, by a triple-digit number.

2. Chinese Media Coverage on BBC Chinese Shortwave

Developments at foreign radio stations – Deutsche Welle, BBC, or the Voice of America, aren’t only closely watched by Chinese dissidents, but by the Chinese media, too. Official Chinese media drew links between the 2008 criticism of the Deutsche Welle Chinese service and Germany’s nazi past. In a somewhat more subtle approach more than two years later, the English-language Global Times wrote that the BBC and VoA being phased out of China demonstrated a blow to the ideological campaign that certain countries have waged for over half a century. In addition to competition from other media, they were being marginalized due to their biased and unprofessional reporting.
Update, very latest link:, March 29, 2018
[New Link: / Old Link:, July 24, 2011]

BBC German Service, 50th Anniversary, 1988

Bush House, on a BBC German Service 50th-Anniversary QSL card, 1988

That said or quoted, be prepared for one or another in the world of PRC media when it comes to views on foreign broadcasting.

On March 30, Southern Weekend (南方周末, Guangzhou) cited opinions from traditional BBC listeners who felt sad about the termination of the station’s shortwave broadcasts, and added that others said that the BBC’s broadcasts had been full of hostility (充满敌意), and should have been closed down long ago. The paper quotes  Kang Yi (康艺), a veteran member of the BBC’s Chinese department from the 1960s to the 1990s, who also believes that shortwave broadcasts should have ended long ago, but obviously for different reasons – that shortwave had become stuff of the past (“国际短波广播是过时的玩意”).”When I joined the BBC, the MI6 would investigate your identity to make sure that you weren’t a spy”, she told Southern Weekend. In line with related articles from many other papers, Southern Weekend’s baseline is that the times have changed, and that a cold war was no issue any more. What the Global Times describes as the VoA’s and the BBC’s “strong ideological labels” even now, reemerges, in a more plausible way, as “a strong ideological nature of international shortwave broadcasting during the cold war” (在康艺看来,冷战时期,各国的国际短波广播自然都有强烈的意识形态色彩:“那就是一种宣传(Propaganda)), in Kang’s words, as quoted by Southern Weekend.

Kang remained a listener (and online reader) of the Chinese department after her retirement, writes Southern Weekend. For some ten years, beginning at the end of the 1990s, the department was headed by someone who didn’t even understand the Chinese language, she remembers – and some staff had developed a habit of “cut-and-paste”, be it from Xinhua, be it from elsewhere, and be it for online articles, or for broadcasts on air. Li Wen ((李文), who grew up in Tianjin and migrated into Hong Kong with his family when he was a teenager, became the department’s manager in 2009. As far as possible, he subscribes to the BBC’s concept of presenting a variety of opinions (李文用“尽可能呈现不同观点”来描述BBC的理念).

“When Western countries bomb Libya, we will present all points of view. Supportive ones, opposing voices, all of them” (“西方国家轰炸利比亚,我们就会把各方观点在节目里呈现出来。支持的、反对的声音,都有”).

Contrary to the Global Times, Southern Weekend doesn’t portray the end of the BBC’s shortwave broadcasts to China as the death of the BBC’s Chinese service:

Li Wen is quoted as saying that from April 11 on, they would broadcast on the internet 24 hours a day, with news every two hours, and that a set of audio programs would also be launched. And in a chronology of its own, Southern Weekend points out that the BBC has a long history of cutting programs.

It’s an interesting reading experience. Southern Weekend has been my favorite read in China for a decade or longer – The paper has frequently been available even in Northeastern China, and it’s probably one of the few Chinese publications which could easily compete with any international weekly, if they weren’t hampered by censorship and propaganda guidelines.

The Southern Weekend article on the BBC also makes me think about shortwave as a medium once again. I’m feeling less puzzled by the BBC Chinese department’s withdrawal from shortwave now, than I did when I heard the news first – whatever the BBC, or VoA governors said, hardly sounded convincing, or even as if they believed their own words.

But neither Kang nor Li seem to be too worried that Chinese internet users could be out of useful tools when facing the Great Firewall. That said, many rural places in China will still depend on shortwave – China National Radio itself operates a number of domestic shortwave frequencies, and several provincial broadcasters do likewise.

Not to mention China Radio International‘s (CRI) shortwave broadcasts around the world, including Europe as a target area. If shortwave messages are “stuff of the past” seems to depend on the sender.


Deutsche Welle Reshuffles, April 1, 2011
Noise doesn’t spell Strength, April 7, 2010


11 Responses to “International Shortwave Broadcasting, “Stuff of the Past”?”

  1. The translation machine says that the Li Wen article (your link before you quote his statement about Libya) isn’t nice to Li and the BBC.


  2. I’ve wondered how many Chinese people actually listened to the BBC World Service. Back in ’03 you would see people walking around in the morning, particularly in university campuses, listening to short-wave sets to learn English. A friend of mine who was allowed to go abroad to study during the early 80’s learned his English from the BBC.

    However, I cannot say that I have heard of people listening to the Chinese service.


  3. Hmm… I didn’t care about the text, Taide – all that counted was that it carried a picture of Li Wen.

    I’m not sure about the BBC’s Chinese service, FOARP. But I do remember that the Voice of America’s Chinese service was listened to even in the big cities, in the 1990s. Many people I knew were critical of the programs, but listened regularly all the same. I guess the BBC must have had (and still have) its listeners, too – depending on how easily their signal was available.
    During the same time, I seem to remember a slow, but steady decline of shortwave receivers on offer in the department stores. But you’d still find some if you look for them, and many other radio receivers come with shortwave bands, too.
    That said, I don’t know people in China anymore who would listen to shortwave regularly. The internet has really replaced much of that. But to have the full picture, one would need to look at the countryside, too. I think this is a picture the BBC and VoA are either missing, or in which they are less interested, because they may assume that big-city opinions matter more than rural ones.



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