Broadcasting to China goes quiet

March 26, 2011

(The views expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not represent those of Reuters)

The end of an era is at hand. March 25th marked the last day of BBC World Service Broadcasts to China and Russia, after 70 years on the air. Voice of America may not be far behind. It several years ago closed down its Russian broadcasts, and according to the President’s 2012 budget request, broadcasts to China are soon to follow. Already short-wave service in Cantonese has been closed down and in October Mandarin is to follow. Next year, television as well as AM and FM radio are on the cutting block.

The Chinese people have been able to rely on truthful information from VOA and the BBC through their many national traumas, including Tiananmen Square. No more. While some VOA short-wave programming is to be transferred to Radio Free Asia, also owned by the U.S. government, the Internet will henceforth be the primary medium of communication with the people of China, a country whose government is world class when it comes to Internet censorship.

On VOA’s Chinese service, which devoted an evening show to the broadcasting cuts last week, callers from China expressed their disappointment and dismay with the radio silence from the West that is about to befall them. Contrary to arguments that radio and satellite TV are completely jammed by the Chinese government, callers from a number of provinces, from Beijing to rural China to Inner Mongolia spoke of their reliance on VOA as an honest and credible source of news and of not knowing where to turn if the broadcasts go off the air. One expressed deep mystification and sadness, “Why are you abandoning us?”

For instance, a caller from Hunan believes the U.S. still has the capability to provide this service, and the U.S. should consider the needs of the Chinese people when decides to make cuts to VOA. A caller from Shandong pointed out that only VOA provides a different view from the official media apparatus in China.

A caller from Beijing who self-described as a long-term listener of VOA, said that if VOA makes their service only available through the internet, the Chinese government can totally cut off the service. A caller in Guangdong explained that he lives in the countryside, and that it would be very difficult for him to get VOA on the web. Many rural Chinese can get VOA only through satellite TV and radio. This point was echoed by a caller from Guangxi, who said that many ordinary Chinese will lose the ability to get VOA broadcasts if it moves solely to the web. Furthermore, he said, it is impossible to get real information about the ongoing unrest in the Middle East at this time on the Chinese Internet.

The caller form Inner Mongolia offered the opinion that VOA should not cut back but actually increase its investment in all mass media, a point echoed by a number of callers. One caller from Gansu even said that if money is the real issue then Chinese listeners would be more than happy to donate to VOA. This last comment ought to make an impression on decision makers here in Washington. Has the United States as a world power really come to this?

The House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations is getting ready to hold hearings on US broadcasting as part of a review of the 2012 VOA proposed cuts. As the president’s budget has not been approved by Congress, there is still time for consideration of the ramifications of a withdrawal from the airwaves in China.

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