Voice of America Mandarin Budget: “Keep Shortwave, for Now”

Cut spending, don’t raise taxes, America’s Republican Party keeps arguing. Not that history suggests that Republicans would act accordingly in practise, but it sounds so beautifully housewifely. Those folks understand how thinks work in real life, the classical Sarah Palin fan (usually herself a housewife, with a hard fiber hairdo and a squinched face underneath) will feel.

America's Space Shuttle Program, featured on a VoA QSL Card of 1986

America's Space Shuttle Program, featured on a VoA QSL Card of 1986

In past budget cut deals, Ronald Reagan preferred raising taxes over budget cuts, as Economist data is showing. George Bush senior on the other hand chose a mix where cuts exceeded tax increases, but by a modest ratio, compared with both Bill Clinton‘s in 1993/97, and Barack Obama‘s proposals this year. Both the past and present Democrat incumbents presided over budget reforms where spending cuts outweighed tax increases by far.

But then, it all depends on where you cut.

Obama cuts off VoA funding for China; gives it to NPR,

Ed Lasky wrote in a post for the American Thinker, in February. The VoA’s (Voice of America) shift from shortwave radio to digital media

is wrongheaded on many levels. The internet is quite easy to filter or just cut off.  Plus, many people in remote areas lack access to the internet,

Lasky wrote. Which might be as true as it reads, if the Chinese Communist Party’s approach in pursuing their agenda was about as fiery as Ed Lasky’s in pursuing his. Internet filtering in China is effective in many cases indeed, and besides, by far not every Chinese internet user even knows the basics about “surfing”. Try and open a browser in an “illegal”, i. e. unregistered internet café, and in about every second case, the address bar’s history is going to display quite a number of rather unimaginative porn searchwords which were entered by a previous user, rather than actual urls.

But you can be pretty sure that things would need to become very serious before the Chinese government would just cut off the internet – VoA wouldn’t be “good” enough for that much trouble. China is no banana economy, and cutting off the internet would come at a cost even the CCP needs to avoid.

Either way – the VoA’s Mandarin service’s radio broadcasts may not be exactly as dead as first reported. A bill by Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (Republican) reserves US$13.76 million from the total budget for government-sponsored broadcasting next year to be strictly used for Mandarin and Cantonese radio and TV broadcasts, the Taipei Times reported on Sunday. It’s only a small step into preserving the radio and tv broadcasts, the Taipei Times’ article points out. And obviously, the VoA’s Madarin service’s future will remain part of the general budget struggles between the administration on the one hand, and the House of Representatives, and the Senate, on the other.

But this is a situation where I feel that Rohrabacher – quite a reactionary in my view – has  a point.

The Chinese people are our greatest allies, and the free flow of information is our greatest weapon,

he was quoted by the Washington Times in February. And matters of taste, style, and the (implicit, but blanket, I believe) allegation against the Obama administration aside, he also has a point in saying that

This is another alarming sign that America is cowering before China’s gangster regime.

America isn’t cowering to Beijing, but the sign was still understood that way by the Global Times at the time – there was apparently no difference in how Beijing and Rohrabacher perceived the cuts. The Global Times, an English-language CCP mouthpiece, wrote in February that cuts at the BBC‘s and VoA’s Mandarin services 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 [original Global Times link apparently no longer valid – http://en.huanqiu.com/opinion/observer/2011-02/623814.html%5D.*)

Every China expert is prepared to give you lessons in how to get your message across in China, when it comes to business. But in the VoA’s case, you’d better turn to Rohrabacher for advice. The VoA has been a tradition in Chinese since 1942, and cuts in a field where China is only beginning its own efforts seem to suggest that efforts to offer the Chinese public a foreign perspective have been abandoned.

That said, Rohrabacher’s and many other stakeholders’ or observers’ advocacy would come across as more credible if they sounded somewhat less sectarian. It is true that the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ (BBG) decision to turn the Voice digital sent the wrong signal. It is also true that it would signal weakness, given the views of the target audience. But to suggest that America  was therefore indeed cowering before China’s gangster regime doesn’t hold water.

The Taipei Times also makes a good point, but shreds some of it again, right away, with a hyperbolic assertion. The New-York based media research organization which conducted the VoA audience research in China, prior to the BGG’s decision to shut shortwave down, then relied on contractors in Beijing to conduct the survey, the paper points out. Doubts about the accuracy of research under these conditions  therefore seem to be in order – but not because of

the prospect of punishment facing anyone in China who admits to listening to VOA broadcasts.

People may get punished for a lot of things in China, even if their behavior would usually be considered completely legal, and even by Chinese authorities. But punishment for listening to the Voice of America is one of the less likely breaches of China’s own law.

In an article for the Public Diplomacy Council (PDC), Kim Andrew Elliott, an expert, if you like, recommends:

Keep shortwave, for now. The BBG is correct that shortwave radio ownership and listening rates are very small in China. Even domestic FM and AM radio has been much less popular than television in the country. Nevertheless, because of the high cost of shortwave transmission, and the unpopularity of shortwave in China, there is incentive for a premature declaration of victory in internet censorship circumvention efforts. Shortwave arguably remains the medium most resistant to interdiction. It is the only medium with a physical resistance to jamming, because radio waves at shortwave frequencies often propagate better over long than short distances. When an objective, independent assessment determines that average internet users in China can conveniently work around government censorship, the shortwave transmitters can be turned off.

I don’t agree that shortwave radio ownership and listening rates would be small in China, and I’m getting the feeling that all the assessments to this direction are based on surveying a rather well-off and well-connected Chinese middle class only. But on all other points he makes, Elliott is most probably right. And he argues in a rational, rather than in an ideology-driven way. He actually thinks about the listeners.

There is a list of twelve recommendations in his article, and each of them is in itself a recommendable read.


Update / Related

» China Radio International: Confucius’ Pavilion of Acid Pleasure, Comment, July 24, 2011


Update / Note

*) New link: Global Times now, rather than Huanqiu English: http://opinion.globaltimes.cn/observer/2011-02/623814.html


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