With China expanding media controls, Congress must fully fund Radio Free Asia
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Tucked away in a U.S. broadcasting budget, you’ll find the end to the radio and television operations of one of America’s most effective foreign language services.

President Trump’s proposed budget for U.S. international broadcasting for fiscal 2018 would cut more than $4.7 million from congressionally funded Radio Free Asia’s annual budget. This would eliminate RFA’s Mandarin’s radio and television broadcasts to China. And it would leave RFA with social media as its sole means of reaching Chinese citizens just as China increasingly monitors and controls social media.

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Radio Free Asia is a nonprofit organization that reaches listeners, viewers and internet users via radio, satellite television and social media in East Asian countries where the media are censored and in many ways restricted. RFA’s nine language services are mandated by congressional legislation to serve as free media “surrogates” covering stories that would otherwise be blocked by authoritarian regimes.

 

The proposed cut comes at a time when China has been increasing its broadcasting efforts overseas, including a rebranding of its flagship television broadcaster CCTV.

Working with a budget many times larger than that which the United States devotes to international broadcasting, China has expanded CCTV’s operations with the aim of improving China’s image overseas.

All of this ties in with China’s larger aim of expanding its “soft power” alongside growing economic and military power.

China’s “soft power” budget comes to roughly $10 billion a year, with much of that devoted to broadcasting. In contrast, the U.S. international broadcasting budget will now be reduced by nearly 13 percent to $685 million. The budget is meant to cover broadcasts by five entities, including RFA, Middle East Broadcasting, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, The Office of Cuban Broadcasting and the Voice of America.

When Congress reviews the Trump administration’s proposed cuts to RFA it should note that CCTV as well as China Radio International (CRI) enjoy unfettered access to U.S. viewers and listeners.

In contrast, China heavily jams RFA and VOA broadcasts and prohibits RFA from opening an office in China. Citizen journalists who provide information, video or tips to RFA risk imprisonment and persecution. And RFA reporters’ family members in China are forced to live under a threat of harassment and jailing by the authorities.

RFA focuses on Chinese censorship in expert analyses and call-in discussions, because some Chinese listeners are unaware of how much censorship actually exists. Others, particularly among the well-educated elite are able to find ways to share their thoughts as well as circumvent China’s “Great Firewall” by using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). This has been documented by Xiao Qiang, editor-in-chief of China Digital Times. Thanks to VPNs, RFA has been able to use Facebook and YouTube to engage a diverse range of citizens.

But Bloomberg reported on July 10 that the Chinese government has instructed telecommunications carriers to block individuals’ access to VPNs by early next year. This will target the most popular way to reach websites based outside the country.

RFA Mandarin connects with its listeners through two call-in shows that deal with discussions of democracy and other issues ignored by the Chinese state media. Callers include dissidents, workers and petitioners whose voices aren’t carried by the state media. Han Dongfang, a consultant and labor activist, investigates Chinese workers’ complaints.

RFA television shows carry in-depth coverage and visuals provided by China-based citizen journalists, and Mandarin-speaking stringers across Asia. Mandarin reporters in Taiwan and Hong Kong report on issues deemed taboo in China. RFA has also focused on a Chinese government campaign to destroy Christian churches and has provided exclusive videos of the destruction.

Like other broadcasters, RFA uses social media extensively. But RFA is valued for its in-depth coverage and award-winning investigative reporting. These, as well as television, require considerable time and investment.

RFA needs to be fully funded in order to continue this challenging work.

A caller in his 70s, a longtime listener, said it all: “Radio Free Asia is the best present that the American people have ever given to the Chinese people … It allows us to speak … RFA is like a torch that leads us on the road to democracy.”

Eliminating RFA Mandarin’s radio and television broadcasts would give a different kind of present to the Chinese Communist Party.

Dan Southerland, former executive editor of the congressionally funded network Radio Free Asia. Southerland was also The Washington Post’s bureau chief in Beijing from 1985-1990. 


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.