The unappreciated power of Radio Free Asia: Telling the truth to China’s people
As March ended, the BBC’s Beijing correspondent, John Sudworth, left China following escalating harassment by the Communist Party there. Sudworth, a nine-year veteran of the BBC’s China desk, since 2018 has investigated the Communist Party’s genocide in Xinjiang, publishing multiple long-form pieces on the concentration and forced labor camps that China has built to persecute Muslim Uyghurs. The Chinese foreign ministry expressed shock at Sudworth’s departure, claiming that he had not informed the authorities of his intention to leave or explained his reasoning. Of course, the harassment continued up until Sudworth and his family boarded their flight for democratic, capitalist Taiwan — Chinese plainclothes police officers followed them through the departure hall, observing them up until they boarded their aircraft.
Sudworth is not the first journalist to provoke the Chinese Communist Party’s ire. In March 2020 — not coincidentally, precisely as the COVID-19 pandemic escalated in the Western world — China expelled The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post from the mainland, and issued intrusive regulations designed to limit and pressure Voice of America and Time reporters still in the country.
The Party-State’s behavior is no surprise. Authoritarian regimes fear criticism: A free media is a mortal threat. Foreign reporters are particularly dangerous. While a dictatorship or oligarchy may harass or even jail foreign correspondents, their countries of origin are unlikely to ignore secret police pressure. Unlike domestic reporters, foreign nationals cannot “disappear.”
But the Chinese Party-State harbors an extreme antipathy towards foreign reporters even when compared to its tyrannical cousins. Indeed, its visceral hatred can be traced to the Soviet Union’s collapse. The Chinese Communist Party’s upper echelons still recall the terror of 1989. The Tiananmen Square massacre was a formative event for the Chinese regime. It demonstrated the power of “colonial” and “imperial” ideologies: that is, the idea, relatively uncontroversial in the West, that a nation’s citizens deserve to live under a transparent, accountable government that allows them to pursue happiness as they see fit, whether that be economically, religiously, or socially.
The Soviet Union’s incremental reforms of the 1980s shattered the Marxist-Leninist system. Soviet subjects, given only marginal breathing space, began to clamor for more. And as state information controls relaxed, Russians and other Soviet subjects saw their suspicions confirmed — they lived under a corrupt party oligarchy that offered its most powerful officials access to luxury and comfort — and murdered or imprisoned those who criticized it. The Chinese Communist Party recognized the potential that Tiananmen held. Marxist-Maoist China diverges from Leninist-Stalinist Russia in many respects — but like the Soviet Communist Party, the CCP hoards benefits for its elites, profiting off the slavery of its subjects. Ironically, Marx’s claims of structural class oppression have found their greatest expression under 20th and 21st century Marxist regimes.
The Party-State’s fear and hatred of free expression and inquiry is expressed through its strict media control. The CCP directly or indirectly controls nearly all Chinese internal media and sponsors multiple international broadcasters to disseminate its propaganda globally. Its “great firewall” regulates internal internet access. YouTube is legally banned in nearly all of China, although the CCP demonstrates its tactical flexibility by allowing certain content creators to produce videos that paint China in a positive light and creating official YouTube channels for its state-run media conglomerates.
China’s information controls relate directly to its foreign policy objectives. The CCP is aggressive and expansionist. And it has determined — first in Hong Kong, then in Xinjiang — that brute force, rather than incremental change, will best achieve its objectives.
Taiwan is the Chinese military’s highest-priority target, but a war to take the island, even absent American and allied intervention, would be costly. Moreover, it is likely that the average Chinese citizen would find the reality of their government’s genocide in Xinjiang and its coup in Hong Kong extremely distasteful. At bottom, the Chinese social contract is premised on stability and economic growth. The Party must therefore manufacture narratives that justify its expansion, at minimum to gain the acquiescence of Chinese society, and ideally to ensure that most young, urbanized Chinese support the Party’s future wars.
The Soviet Union engaged in a similar sort of social control, albeit with paper and pen, typewriter, the radio, and television.
One of the West’s most potent weapons against the Soviet Empire was state-backed public broadcasting. Radio Free Europe (RFE) and Radio Liberty (RL), two U.S.-sponsored news agencies, targeted their broadcasts towards those living under communist tyranny. While RFE covered specific Eastern Bloc countries, RL directed its efforts towards Russia itself.
RFE/RL discussed the topics the Soviet regime most feared — dissident movements, anti-government demonstrations, and defections. Soviet authorities so despised RFE/RL that the Politburo invested heavily in radio jamming technology: in 1958, the Soviets spent more on jamming Western transmissions than on their own domestic and international propaganda. In 1981, the KGB, working with the East German and Romanian secret police, bombed RFE/RL’s headquarters in Munich. The Polish and Czechoslovak secret police repeatedly attempted to infiltrate RFE broadcasting stations and Voice of America regional offices.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, along with Voice of America, became the most trusted news outlets in the Soviet bloc because, in simple terms, they spoke the truth.
Soviet subjects knew the true nature of the regimes under which they lived. Western broadcast media, by providing Eastern Europe’s hostage populations with real information, promoting the dissident movements that challenged Marxist tyranny, and — of equal importance — offering access to Western culture and music, slowly undermined the Soviet system internally. It is striking that Hungarians, long after the collapse of communism, still turn to American public broadcasting as their government attempts to restrict media access. In 2020, Radio Free Europe restarted its broadcasts to Hungary in large measure because Hungary’s ruling party has all but throttled domestic broadcasting.
Simple convictions are seldom true in international politics — but often, men and women know when they are being lied to and will hear the truth when it is spoken.
President Biden’s legislative career spanned 36 years, including three separate stints as the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and an eight-year stint as Judiciary Committee chair. Any person holding office for that long will shift policy positions, even on critical issues. Given this fact, it is remarkable that Mr. Biden was one of the most forthright advocates for American public international broadcasting, both during and after the Cold War. Most notably, in 1993 Mr. Biden opposed the Clinton administration’s efforts to absorb Radio Free Europe into the U.S. Information Agency, arguing that a core aspect of American international broadcasting’s appeal was its impartiality and journalistic integrity.
The partisan acrimony that enveloped the previous administration intensified the ever-present political warfare over American international broadcasting, particularly Radio Free Europe and Voice of America. Mr. Biden has appointed new executives to run these outlets. Notwithstanding, Mr. Sudworth’s departure from China demonstrates the degree to which China fears external media.
The Biden administration appears to recognize the threat China poses to American interests and values. Strategic efforts must be central to any administration’s China policy. Nevertheless, ancillary programes, most importantly international broadcasting, can be a powerful tool in international competition.
Mr. Biden understands the importance of international broadcasting. The 2020 budget asked Congress to spend 5.4 percent of the U.S. Agency for Global Media’s budget on broadcasting to Asia. Mr. Biden would do well — at the minimum — to shift priorities and provide the resources to expand the activities of Asian-directed media outlets, most notably Radio Free Asia.
It is common today to hear Polish, Romanian, Baltic and others from former Warsaw Pact states of a certain age relate that they listened — illegally — to Radio Free Europe and Voice of America nightly, and that these broadcasts were a lifeline that sustained them.
Mr. Biden’s administration can hasten the day when we hear the same from the citizens of a free China.
Seth Cropsey is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington and director of Hudson’s Center for American Seapower. He served as a U.S. naval officer and as deputy Undersecretary of the Navy.
Harry Halem, a research associate at Hudson and graduate student at the London School of Economics, contributed to this op-ed.
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