Earlier this year, dozens of relatives of five reporters of the Uyghur Service, Radio Free Asia (RFA), were detained by the Chinese government in China’s Xinjiang region. The medieval type of practice was clearly a powerful means of retaliation against the reporters. Such long-standing practice promised severe punishment to those who dared to challenge the regime by holding their loved ones hostage.
Radio Free Asia is one of the media organizations managed by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a federal agency. BBG’s flagship, Voice of America (VOA), has broadcast to the world since 1942. In 1984, President Reagan announced in the Oval Office:
“The Voice of America has been a strong voice for truth, and despite problems of antiquated equipment and Soviet jamming, the Voice of America has been able to spread its message of truth around the world.”
I started to be a secret VOA listener when I was 15. Later, when I was in a Chinese prison as a political dissident, my interrogators asked: “Did you listen to enemy radios?” I replied: “Voice of America.”
Thousands of Chinese citizens were arrested and given long sentences in jail simply for listening to VOA. At the time, I would never imagine that, 35 years later, I could become the first Asian-American and female director of the Chinese Branch of VOA.
Being a Chinese-language reporter at both VOA and RFA is one of the most hazardous jobs in the federal government, especially for those who originally came from communist China.
Naturally, each such reporter has family and friends in his/her country of origin. To avoid endangering their loved ones, almost all of them use assumed names for broadcasting. It takes extra courage to appear on TV.
The Chinese intelligence service closely monitors the two U.S. broadcasting entities and their employees. Many reporters with Chinese origin have been harassed by the security police when they visit their families in China.
In some occasions, the secret police were waiting at their doorsteps, demanding to talk. During such interrogations, the police would ask them about the details of VOA operation, and bullied them to promise “not to be antagonistic to China.”
Their families would be visited by agents from the state from time to time. Such threats appeared to be somewhat working, since a few reporters hesitated to take sensitive assignment after their trips.
The frequent harassment which implies harsh retaliation by the most powerful police state in human history makes reporting for the Chinese services at VOA and RFA one of the most hazardous jobs in the federal government — more than a CIA analyst whose employment is kept out of the public eyes.
Yet, the federal bureaucracy rarely takes threats from China seriously. On some occasions, the bureaucrats may even intentionally leak information which is harmful to those reporters.
My colleagues and I are suffering from such a leak by Voice of America.
On April 19, 2017, I led a team of VOA Mandarin journalists to conduct a live interview with Guo Wengui, a prominent whistle-blowing billionaire from China. At the time, Guo already made his name by exposing massive corruption among top Chinese communist leaders.
We advertised the show on TV and via internet ahead of time. Two days before the scheduled interview, the Chinese government made extremely serious threats to Mr. Guo and to VOA, demanding cancellation of the interview.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry summoned the VOA reporters in Beijing. The Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C. called VOA numerous times, threatening to retaliate. It also issued an arrest warrant for Mr. Guo inside China, and a red notice through the Interpol. Under great pressure, the VOA management pulled the plug in the middle of the live interview, creating an unprecedented media incident.
The public, especially the Chinese audiences, were furious. Messages of protest poured in. To cover up their caving to a hostile foreign government, the VOA management accused the frontline reporters of insubordination when conducting the interview, even though such accusation was baseless as no order had been issued, let alone violated.
A few days later, VOA made a public announcement, placing five Chinese-language journalists on administrative leave. The announcement specifically mentioned my name. By doing so, the VOA also placed a bullseye on each of the journalists, identifying targets for the Chinese government.
With unrestrained public funding, BBG/VOA assembled four separate investigation teams with multiple high-price outside lawyers and investigators, determining to put the blame squarely on the frontline journalists.
Among the four investigations, one was conducted by a team of three people hired from Beijing, China. The leading investigator was the chairman of APCO in China, a branch of the powerful Washington lobby firm. He brought two assistants, including one Chinese citizen. APCO works closely with many Chinese state-owned companies, and keeps good relationship with a number of high-ranking Chinese communist leaders.
The BBG/VOA management eagerly provided all kinds of personal information of ours to this team from China, including names on our American passports, resumes, employment history, addresses, telephone numbers, emails, etc. We have no idea if any other information in our 136-page SF86 form was released.
The Chinese member in the team ordered each of us to appear in front of a forum of inquisition, demanding all details of the Guo interview.
As a proud American citizen who is fully committed to fight for democracy and freedom, I am also fully prepared to face the hostility from the Chinese government. I just never expected to be stabbed in the back by the swamp thing in Washington, D.C.
• Sasha Gong, a China specialist, lives in Falls Church, Va. The views are the author’s and not any government agency or department.