As China’s increasing economic, espionage and military might threaten ever-greater influence over the United States, why would we even consider junking our most cost-effective leverage over the future of Chinese policy? If permitted to stand, the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors’ (BBG) proposal to eliminate Voice of America (VOA) shortwave radio and satellite TV broadcasts to the Chinese people will harm our national security posture.
The problem here is part of bigger issues: Should we have relations with foreign peoples or just governments? Should we shape foreign opinion or let foreign propaganda do so?
Neglecting relations with opinion leaders has been a persistent policy problem. Failing to gain foreign public sympathy with U.S. ideals and objectives makes it is harder to achieve them. But winning sympathy means having friends and even intelligence sources who believe in freedom.
Jasmine Revolutions erupted in four Arab states, yet Washington had no relations with the revolutionaries. Most Arabs have U.S. policies explained to them by al Jazeera. Most Afghans have them explained by the Taliban.
Now the BBG is about to renounce the most powerful form of “soft power” we have over China: our ability to inform, inspire and connect with the Chinese public - the ordinary people whom the regime fears more than anything else - and help the Chinese people communicate with one another.
Cutting VOA broadcasts to China is designed to “save” $8 million and shift it to expanded Internet outreach. However worthy the Internet may be, only a fraction of the Chinese population is connected to it, and Beijing censors it and even has shut it down.
While Chinese Internet usage is severely limited, shortwave broadcasting reaches the entire country and is the favored method of communication by the regime itself. The regime cannot identify VOA listeners and therefore cannot punish them.
The BBG justifies its decision with specious statistics “showing” a tiny VOA audience - statistics gathered by a Chinese state-sanctioned polling company through interviews and Internet polls. Responses are monitored by a regime that has punished listeners of “subversive” broadcasts. Because it would be crazy to admit listening to VOA, the statistics more accurately measure the size of the crazy population of China. Furthermore, audience size can change radically overnight under conditions of political crisis.
The BBG argues that broadcasts will continue to China by Radio Free Asia (RFA). Fine and good. But RFA has a different mission than VOA. It, like Radio Free Europe, is designed to serve as a “surrogate domestic free press” whose programming concerns developments within China itself - news and information suppressed by the communist regime.
The VOA has a separate and equally important mission. It explains U.S. policy and helps foreign audiences understand America. Both missions are essential and cannot effectively be melded into a single station.
During the Cold War, Alexander Solzhenitsyn called our radio broadcasts “the mightiest weapon that the United States possesses to create mutual understanding between America and the oppressed Russian people.” Recognizing this in the 1980s, we strengthened our broadcasts to the Soviet empire. They were arguably the most influential instrument we had to embolden domestic resistance to that regime. They not only connected us with the people, they enabled the people, who established underground lines of communication with their radios, to communicate among themselves, organize and create a critical mass of resistance. When asked about the importance of radios to the rise and survival of the Solidarity movement in Poland, Polish President Lech Walesa replied, “Would there be life on earth without the sun?”
Similarly, VOA inspired the pro-democracy 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations, which were cruelly suppressed by our current “trading partners.”
U.S. policy has long hoped that Chinese economic reforms would translate into political reforms. But this has not happened. Instead, we see China pursuing Cold War policies: 25,000 spies in the United States; relentless cyber-attacks on our corporations, government agencies and China experts; nuclear proliferation to Iran and North Korea; massive military buildup; regional hegemonism; and propagandizing its people and armed forces that the United States is the “main enemy.”
Meanwhile, as we steadily lose our economic and military edge over Beijing for $8 million - not saved, but reprogrammed - we are throwing out what may be our most powerful leverage: our alliance with millions of its oppressed people for whom dissent is still rewarded with slave labor in the Chinese gulag.
We may wake up one day to the reality that Beijing is poised to subject us to strategic blackmail while we are in a state of strategic inferiority. We then may have no choice but to kowtow and become one of China’s tributary states. One of the few things that could prevent such a scenario would be political change prompted by the Chinese people. Only one strategic asset can help promote such change: our ability to support the Chinese people’s desire to reclaim their freedom and their human dignity. Their capability to do so, like that of the peoples of the Soviet empire, depends heavily on our ability to communicate with them now and give them the instruments to communicate with one another. The VOA’s China broadcasts already contribute mightily to this capability, and prudence dictates that they must be preserved.
John Lenczowski, formerly President Reagan’s Soviet affairs adviser, is president of the Institute of World Politics. He is author of “Full Spectrum Diplomacy and Grand Strategy” (Lexington Books, 2011).