BBG Watch Guest Commentary
This report was submitted by a Voice of America (VOA) journalist who wants to remain anonymous.
VOA Is Now VOC (Voice of China), Many Chinese Say
By Anonymous VOA Journalist
On the 29th anniversary of the June 4 Tiananmen Massacre, the Chinese Branch of Voice of America posted an interview, with the headline “Washington Scholars Discuss the Sino-US Trade Dispute.”
Although the Chinese title gave the impression that the Voice of America would present views of multiple scholars in the nation’s capital, it was an interview with just one scholar, Resident Senior Fellow Sourabh Gupta from Institute for China-America Studies (ICAS). In the interview, Gupta commented on a congressional proposal for US restrictions on the Chinese telecom company ZTE. The message from the interview was that the U.S. Congress behaved irresponsibly when calling for sanctioning ZTE for allegedly breaking US law by selling sensitive products to Iran and North Korea. Those watching the interview were encouraged to think that the congressional proposal was the wrong approach to the issue because the Chinese government could behave irrationally, and following the US example, could retaliate against American companies in China in the same manner.
Many Chinese viewers responded to the VOA interview with angry comments. One person talked about being almost certain that the Washington think tank takes money from the Chinese government. In fact, ICAS appears to be funded by the Chinese communist authorities via a government-sponsored organization named Nanhai Foundation.
In July 2016, Foreign Policy magazine carried a special report on ICAS with the title “Beijing establishes a think tank, and no one notices.” The report concluded:
Despite its advocacy for Beijing’s controversial and important position in the disputed South China Sea, the Institute for China-American Studies (ICAS) — the only Chinese think tank based in Washington D.C. — has been unable to rise from obscurity… It has all of 46 Twitter followers.
SEE: Beijing Establishes a D.C. Think Tank, and No One Notices, Isaac Stone Fish, Foreign Policy, July 7, 2016.
Almost two years later, the number of its Twitter followers has increased to 937.
In the past decade, the Chinese government established or funded hundreds of organizations in the United States to carry out its lobbying and public relations campaigns. The most well-known is the Confucius Institute embedded in dozens of American universities. Some in Congress are seeking to declare these institutes as foreign agents.
ICAS appears to have been established with a clear goal to present in Washington the Chinese official view on the South China Sea issue. But the think tank also serves as a provider of propaganda targeting Chinese speakers in China and abroad. Google results show that its researchers and fellows are quoted mostly by the Chinese government-controlled media. This allows the official media to claim that so-called “Washington experts” agree with the Chinese government positions on various issues. By giving a platform to one of such so-called “experts,” the Voice of America became a participant in Chinese propaganda. The interview has made it easier for the Chinese communist government and its media to spread this kind of propaganda.
The real purpose of ICAS and similar organizations is the worst-hidden secret in the Chinese-speaking world. The Chinese who know whom these so-called “experts” really represent usually ignore spokespersons of Chinese government-controlled organizations when seeing their names in the media.
This makes it even more peculiar that the Voice of America would take ICAS seriously as a legitimate think tank. A VOA sit-down interview and a special report gave legitimacy to a Chinese government propaganda mouth-piece. Now the Chinese government media can simply attack the US Congress as behaving “irrationally” toward China by quoting from the Voice of America interview.
There has been a steady decline in Voice of America’s credibility in China since the VOA senior management made its controversial decision to shorten the Guo Wengui whistleblower interview on April 19, 2017. The senior management was acting against advice and protests of Mandarin Service journalists who wanted the interview with Guo Wengui to continue. Since that time VOA Director Amanda Bennett appointed a non-Chinese VOA journalist who does not speak Chinese and has close to zero knowledge of Chinese politics and culture to lead the China Branch.
BBG Watch Comment:
VOA Director Amanda Bennett justified her decision to the China Branch staff in a way that offended many VOA Chinese broadcasters. Her statement is worth quoting, not just for balance, but also because it speaks volumes about how VOA senior leaders manage programs and employees, including those whom they want to fire in the Mandarin Service where employee morale appears to have hit the bottom.
VOA DIRECTOR AMANDA BENNETT: “You know, you know what. We, the skill set that we need here right now is excellent journalism, experience, ah, collaborativeness, and fearlessness. And I think, you know, you can see that Ernie has got all of those things. And, you guys are going to, you guys are going to be able to help him make up that. You know, if you’re weighing something, you know, we’ve got a lot of candidates that came in who are super fluent in Mandarin, you know. But that was it. What good is that gonna do? You guys all speak Mandarin, you know, and Cantonese, you know. Why would I hire someone to do what all of you guys are able to do? What we need is a leader. Right? And Ernie is a leader. Ernie has proved over and over again that he’s a leader. And so when you’re weighing things — you know, language fluency, leadership — and, you know, you get someone with big language fluency but no leadership. You know, he’s a mover. Really strong leadership. We can figure out, and you guys already proved you can figure out, how you make up for that. So, that’s my answer.”
VOA Director Amanda Bennett also astounded many China Branch journalists when she said in a public forum that there was no Chinese government pressure on the Guo Wengui interview despite the fact that the Chinese Foreign Ministry had called the VOA correspondent in Beijing for a meeting to protest the interview and the Chinese Embassy in Washington had placed phone calls to VOA reportedly to demand that it be canceled.
Since then, VOA China Branch journalists have been ordered to give more play to the pro-Chinese government voices in the name of “balance” which explains the interview with Sourabh Gupta from China’s think tank in Washington. VOA’s senior management obviously does not realize that the Chinese government propaganda has already overwhelmed and dominated the media landscape in that language. What VOA should be doing is to counter Chinese propaganda, not add to it. VOA should not legitimize this kind of propaganda and help to spread it by conducting lengthy one-sided interviews with pro-Chinese communist government PR specialists.
The downfall of the Voice of America Chinese broadcasting is a real tragedy. In 1989, during the Tiananmen democracy movement, demonstrators aired VOA programs via loud speakers on the square. Millions in China turned to VOA for truth and diverse opinions. Almost three decades later, after VOA Director Amanda Bennett decided to censor the Guo Wengui interview — she claims it was not censorship but an attempt to defend good journalism — and her managers have demanded airing of more pro-Chinese government voices for the sake of “balance,” the Voice of America’s reputation among the Chinese audience has been seriously damaged. It appears now that VOA is making itself even more part of the Chinese propaganda effort.