BBG Watch Commentary

Changqing Cao, a U.S. based independent Chinese journalist and political commentator who has a wide social media following in China, including Hong Kong, and appears in TV programs in Taiwan, released a 25-minute YouTube video in which he analyzes and questions VOA Director Amanda Bennett’s decision to cut short the live VOA Mandarin Service TV and Facebook interview with Chinese whistleblower Guo Wengui and subsequently placing five VOA Mandarin journalists on administrative leave with pay. The Changqing Cao YouTube video had close to 30,000 views in one day after being posted on September 11. As of late evening September 20, the video is showing 69,650 views, over 1,000 likes, and 550 comments.

Changqing Cao came to the United States in the 1980s after a local newspaper in China, Shenzhen Youth, where he was the deputy editor-in-chief, was closed by the government in 1987 for being “pro-freedom.” He has more than 45 thousand Twitter followers. His tweet for his video on the VOA Director Amanda Bennett’s role in the Guo Wengui interview controversy shows a large number of likes and retweets. A request to VOA and BBG for a response to the Changqing Cao video remained unanswered.

The large number of views for the independent Chinese journalist’s investigative journalism video on YouTube may indicate that the Chinese are still very interested in finding out why VOA’s senior management overruled VOA Mandarin journalists and ordered the live interview with a famous Chinese whistleblower to be shortened on April 19. Compared to VOA’s usual performance on YouTube, the Changqing Cao video seems to be having a having a strong impact. Most VOA English News YouTube videos show barely a few hundred views after one week. Most of VOA Mandarin Service YouTube videos show similarly low results, although some VOA Mandarin videos do get a few thousand views. Changqing Cao has done in the past freelance commentaries for both VOA and Radio Free Asia (RFA).

Changqing Cao
VOA Mandarin Service Chief Dr. Sasha Gong (L) and VOA Director Amanda Bennett (R)

In his YouTube video, Changqing Cao raises questions about Ms. Bennett’s family’s business operations in China. Changqing Cao points out in the video that Kaplan, Inc., which he says does multimillion dollar educational operations in communist China, belongs to a company run by Ms. Bennett’s husband.

In his YouTube video, Changqing Cao also questions the hiring of an investigator by VOA’s parent federal agency, the Broadcasting Board to Governors (BBG). The investigator was highly praised by Ms. Bennett. The Chinese journalist said that the person who was to investigate the handling of the Guo Wengui interview and report on his findings to the VOA and BBG management was himself doing business in China for many years and had contacts with Chinese communist officials.

The investigator described by Changqing Cao in the video may not longer be working for the BBG on the case of the five VOA Mandarin Service journalists. Following the shortened interview with Guo Wengui, VOA Mandarin Service Chief Dr. Sasha Gong and four other journalists had been placed by Ms. Bennett on administrative leave with pay. Since May 1, only one of the five journalists is believed to have been allowed to return to work.

The official explanation from Ms. Bennett was that in making her decision on shortening the live interview she was not caving in to pressure from the Chinese government and was only concerned with upholding high journalistic standards by wanting the Chinese officials to respond in advance to Guo Wengui’s allegations was met with thousands of skeptical and often sarcastic social media comments from the Chinese. The comments were highly critical of the VOA management.

Shortly after the interview was abruptly cut after one hour and 19 minutes, the VOA director was told by journalists working in the Mandarin Service, that VOA had suffered an “unbelievable” public relations damage in China for not delivering on its promise of conducting a three hour combination live TV (one hour) and live Facebook (two hours) interview with whistleblower.

Chinese Americans and other supporters of media freedom protest against censorship and stage a mock funeral in front of the Voice of America building in Washington, D.C. in May 2017.
A Chinese protester at a mock funeral on May 8, 2017 at the Voice of America (VOA) headquarters building in Washington, DC.

VOA MANDARIN SERVICE JOURNALIST TO VOA DIRECTOR AMANDA BENNETT: “For the past two weeks, we were flooded with angry posts from our audience, asking VOA to provide an explanation. …I really think we owe our audience an explanation. I understand that the PR Office had a statement, but a lot of people considered that as insufficient. I think we owe our audience an apology or an explanation. But at this point, I think, it’s already too late. Still, something is better than nothing because I see the damage to our reputation. It’s unbelievable. I’ve been working here for 20 years and I have never seen such a PR crisis. Really. I have never seen anything like this. The anger and the frustration of our audience.”

According to a statement issued in May, decisions which led to making the interview with Guo Wengui shorter than what the audience expected were made by “senior VOA leaders led by me [Amanda Bennett].”

Amanda Bennett

AMANDA BENNETT: “The decisions regarding the interview with Guo Wengui were made by a group of senior VOA leaders led by director Amanda Bennett and included deputy director Sandy Sugawara, language program director Kelu Chao, and East Asia division director Norm Goodman. At no time during this decision-making process was there any management consideration of not doing the interview, nor of cutting short an ongoing interview for any reason. The decisions were based on the journalistic principles of verification, balance and fairness that are standard industry practice and apply universally to all VOA services.”

Amanda Bennett also gave her side of the story to CNBC reporter Evelyn Cheng who wrote in an online article that “a dispute over why Voice of America abruptly shut down an interview with a vocal critic of Beijing is raising questions about whether Chinese leadership influenced the U.S. broadcaster.

In a letter to the Editor of the Wall Street Journal Bennett accused Dr. Gong of not agreeing with “universally accepted journalistic principles.” In another letter to the Editor of the Wall Street Journal, former VOA director Robert R. Reilly defended Dr. Gong and her VOA Mandarin Service colleagues who are now under an investigation ordered by the VOA director.

Former VOA journalists don’t recall any previous instance of five federal government employees, all of them Voice of America broadcasters, being simultaneously placed on administrative leave, with or without pay, by any former VOA director over a programming dispute or any other issue.

Amanda Bennett is receiving strong support from her immediate boss, Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) CEO John F. Lansing, a well-informed inside source told BBG Watch. Several members of Congress, including Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), have called for an independent investigation by the Office of Inspector General (OIG) of the actions of the VOA and BBG management in the handling of the Guo Wengui interview. Both Bennett and Lansing are Obama era appointees. None had any prior experience in U.S. public diplomacy, government service or managing federal workforce.

Since the incident with the VOA interview, Guo Wengui has applied for political asylum in the United States. In “A thank you to America,” op-ed published on September 18 in The Washington Times, Guo Wengui praised “the great American tradition of upholding justice and respect for human rights.”

GUO WENGUI WASHINGTON TIMES OP-ED: “It is my hope that a fair-minded and strictly lawful treatment of my asylum application will enable me all the more to reveal the glaring contrast between the American and the Chinese ways of government. It is a difference as stark as night and day, and between vice and virtue. This has made me all the more determined to continue my own fight for freedom, democracy, rule of law and an independent judiciary in my home country of China, and to continue to expose corruption, particularly at the highest levels of the Chinese government.”

READ MORE: “A thank you to America – An asylum seeker from China facing political persecution recalls his grim struggle and his unlikely triumph.” ANALYSIS/OPINION by Guo Wengui. The Washington Times, September 18, 2017.