The Obama administration will cancel shortwave radio broadcasts by Voice of America into China this year, as Beijing is expanding its propaganda operations in the United States and around the world.
Critics of the broadcasting cuts, announced Monday, said major reductions in staff and shortwave broadcasts will sharply curtail an important outlet for unfiltered news and information for large numbers of people in China, especially areas such as Tibet and western Xinjiang province, where pro-democracy forces are opposing Chinese rule.
“This is another alarming sign that America is cowering before China’s gangster regime,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, California Republican and member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “The Chinese people are our greatest allies, and the free flow of information is our greatest weapon.”
The cuts were outlined as a cost-cutting measure in the fiscal 2012 budget report of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, VOA’s parent agency. The plan calls for shifting the focus from shortwave to digital media, such as Internet broadcasts.
The plan was announced at a recent meeting of China branch employees by VOA Director Dan Austin, who said he supports the administration plan, despite opposition within the unit.
If Congress approves the plan, all shortwave VOA radio and television broadcasts in Chinese, under way since 1942, will end on Oct. 1.
The U.S. government will continue to operate Radio Free Asia, a less official and smaller news operation that will continue broadcasts into China and other closed states in Asia. It also is facing budget cuts that officials say will limit its effectiveness.
However, Voice of America has a much wider audience and larger reach that will be sharply curtailed by the shift to the Internet because many Chinese in rural areas or regions facing central government punishment do not have access to the Internet or cell phones.
“This cut will send a very wrong message to China,” said an administration official close to VOA. “By eliminating all VOA radio and TV broadcasts to China, the United States will remove one of the most important sources of unfiltered news broadcasting into China.”
A second administration official familiar with internal discussions on the issue said one reason for the cuts was the Chinese government’s refusal to assist U.S. broadcasts in China by providing affiliates to rebroadcast programs through AM and FM radio.
That refusal came as China is about to launch 60 U.S. affiliates for its propaganda broadcasts here. China’s CCTV state television also is widely available on U.S. cable television networks.
According to the second official, the State Department refused to pressure China to permit U.S. radio affiliates over concerns that Beijing would cancel exchanges for U.S. academics.
Former Broadcast Board of Governors member Blanquita Cullum said now is not the time to limit broadcasts into closed societies like communist China.
“When it comes to pro-democracy broadcasting to the world and with events like Egypt happening, this is not the time to retreat,” she said. “This is the time to advance and reach out with more broadcasting.”
Internet-only broadcasting will prevent millions of Chinese from getting news and information, especially those in restricted areas. “Our broadcasts must not only be focused only on the elites but should target the masses who are protesting against the elites,” Ms. Cullum said.
Officials said internal Broadcasting Board of Governors surveys have shown the number of VOA listeners in China is greater than both Radio Free Asia and the British Broadcasting Corp. combined.
“During Uighur unrest in July 2009, VOA reporters were told by interviewees that the audience got their information via radio because there was no Internet access and phone lines were cut off,” the first official said, referring to a pro-democracy uprising by a Turkic ethnic group in western Xinjiang province.
The plan to cut VOA China broadcasts follows the recent state visit to the United States by Chinese President Hu Jintao. Some officials say the VOA cuts were a concession to China to alleviate Beijing’s decades-long jamming of VOA radio signals.
“The ironic thing is that VOA’s shortwave broadcasts into China are much more difficult and labor-intensive to jam than VOA’s digital, social media and satellite broadcasts,” said John J. Tkacik Jr., a former State Department China specialist.
“The Egypt demonstrations were organized via text messaging and Facebook, but those media are very tightly monitored and censored in China,” he said. “So I’m not sure it makes much sense for VOA to divert all its efforts into social and digital media.”
Mr. Tkacik said the Broadcasting Board of Governors is cutting U.S. programs to the world’s largest potential market at a time when Beijing is expanding its propaganda footprint in the United States. It also comes as the BBC and Taiwanese government broadcasts to China are being cut.
Board spokeswoman Letitia King said the cuts are part of a budget review and that broadcasting would continue through Radio Free Asia. VOA’s China branch will focus solely on Web operations and mobile-phone operations, she said.
As for Internet blocking by China, Ms. King said, “We understand that China censors, and we are the leaders in anti-censorship and censorship circumvention.”
Board member S. Enders Wimbush said in an interview that the cuts were made after surveys showed a sharp decline in shortwave radio listeners in China, except in certain regions.
“That said, we’re perfectly aware that we want to maintain a shortwave foothold and what we’ve done is taken VOA frequencies and time slots and consolidated them into Radio Free Asia,” he said. “We haven’t stopped broadcasting to China, we’ve just recalibrated the broadcasts.”
The broadcasting board’s budget report, made public Monday, said the agency will save up to $8 million from its $767 million request by “realigning its transmission network and resources for broadcasts to China.”
“Research indicates that China has the second-largest number of Internet users in the world - trailing only the United States and, despite blocking by the Chinese government, many survey respondents access BBG websites through proxy servers,” the report said.
The cuts include the dismissal of 45 Chinese broadcasters, 38 from the Mandarin language service and all Cantonese broadcasters. The current staff in the Mandarin service is 69 people.
A third administration official involved in Asian radio broadcasts said shortwave radio remains an important tool to reach Asia’s information-deprived audiences.
In Tibet and western Xinjiang province, where ethnic Uighurs are opposing Chinese rule, “shortwave is a lifeline to those who are cut off from all but the official media,” this official said.
Shortwave listeners are not as numerous as Web users, “but those who are limited to shortwave still represent millions of highly motivated information seekers,” the official said.
In Xinjiang, the government shut off Internet and cell-phone links during and after the protests from July 2009 to April 2010.
“Throughout China, Beijing puts millions of dollars into jamming shortwave signals to keep stories about a dissident talking about nonviolent dissent, the Dalai Lama discussing the real situation in Tibet or growing protests throughout China by those who have been displaced by government malfeasance,” the official said.
VOA broadcasts to China began in 1942. The change will affect more than 90 hours of radio and television programs in Chinese every week through a dozen radio and television affiliates in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Last year, China’s state-controlled news agency Xinhua began an English-language television service operating 24 hours as part of what officials say is an effort to expand the communist government’s media influence abroad.
“China has appropriated $7 billion on international propaganda in the past two years,” said the first official who is close to VOA. “In 2011, CCTV [state television] North America in Washington, D.C., plans to increase its reporters from 12 to 20 people. Meanwhile, VOA Chinese staff will be cut over 50 percent.”