VOA Cannot Retreat from China
Jing Zhang
Women’s Rights in China

I remember an afternoon forty years ago. My father furiously slapped my uncle. The argument was behind closed doors and hushed. I couldn’t make out the reason. Later my sister told me that uncle listened to “the enemy station”—Voice of America—on the radio. Father said that we could be shot for listening to enemy stations. I had no idea what “Voice of America” was, only vaguely remembered the name from then on.

As I grew up, I learned to listen to short-wave broadcasts. Democracy, freedom and human rights became my lifelong passion, which entailed the price of nearly six years’ imprisonment. From a privileged daughter of Communist Party members, I became a young “anti-revolutionary” criminal. In prison, when I received a visit by my uncle, he told me that radio dials had become more accurate and noises had become weaker.

In those days, massive numbers of radio listeners in Mainland China relied on Voice of America for a sneak peek of the outside world through a narrow but open gate. Through VOA, the Chinese public understood that “Imperialist America” was not the monster the official propaganda made it out to be; that the Chinese should also enjoy human rights; that all men were created equal; that democracy was actually a good thing. Many of those who listened to VOA later became leaders and staunch believers who propelled the Democracy Movement — from Democracy Wall in 1979, Tiananmen in 1989, to today. The credit due to VOA, who accompanied the struggles of more than two generations of Chinese, could not be overestimated.

The world had experienced great changes. The only thing that didn’t change was the Chinese Communist regime’s dictatorship. In recent years, arrests, imprisonment and abuse of dissidents at the hands of the regime have increased. More horrifyingly, the police had adopted mafia-like methods by beating and abducting dissidents in the open. Since the start of the Internet-based Jasmine Revolution in February, large numbers of dissidents and civil rights activists had been arrested or put under house arrest. Many ordinary activists had been arrested along with famous personalities such as the artist Ai Weiwei and the attorney Tang Jinling. More than a dozen dissidents in Guiyang, Guizhou, have been harassed by the police many times at home in the last five months. They were taken away on forced “vacations” lasting three days to a month. Even Ms. Wu Yuqin, suffering from breast cancer, was not spared.

Long-time dissidents in exile abroad, of course, were still prevented from returning to China. It could not be more obvious that Hu Jingtao and his regime aimed to “harmonize” any discordant notes that went against the command of the Party. China, too, climbed on the rising information age of the Internet. According to the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, there were 477 million people using the Internet in China. However, almost all of them are trapped inside the government’s powerful firewall. Very few Internet users are capable of “jumping the wall” to access information from abroad. A much bigger group, at least 700 million, mostly residents of small towns and villages, still live in a world outside of the web. They can only rely on the family radio or television to enrich their lives.

Ms. Nie Lina, five months pregnant, is arrested in Xiangcheng, Henan for protesting against  the Chinese government. She was jailed for 15 days. Photo courtesy of Women's Rights in China, WRIC.
Ms. Nie Lina, five months pregnant, is arrested in Xiangcheng, Henan for protesting against the Chinese government. She was jailed for 15 days. Photo courtesy of Women's Rights in China, WRIC.

Earlier this year, I interviewed a victim of botched sterilization operations mandated by the government’s birth planning policy, which resulted in a crippling disability. This woman from a rural area insisted that her name could not be publicized on “foreign radio”, otherwise local officials would never stop persecuting her. I was puzzled and asked what she meant by “foreign radio”. “Voice of America and that Radio something Asia,” she told me. How would the village officials know of what was being reported on those stations? The victim told me that they would be listening. There were many others who listened in her village. They first found out about the Sichuan earthquake from “foreign radio”. Even village officials were now openly listening to “enemy stations”.

An unemployed woman from a large southern Chinese city told me that she tried to learn to use the Internet. But she could not afford computer repairs and did not know how to protected it from viruses. So she decided to learn about the outside world through radio, which was both simple and inexpensive. Her regular listening schedule included VOA, Radio Free Asia, Radio France Internationale, and Deutsche Welle. Every day from dusk to about ten at night, the radio interference was very heavy, but after this period, the broadcasts were very clear. She usually would not go to bed before finishing listening to the programs. Whenever static was unusually heavy, she could switch between frequencies to find a station with a clearer signal.

There is no doubt that Voice of America’s broadcast in Chinese still enjoy a vast and loyal audience in China. At the same time as the Chinese government is trampling human rights, tightening Internet controls and blocking Western information and the values of human rights and political freedom, it is also actively expanding the propaganda apparatus abroad. In 2009, the government initiated the Great Foreign Propaganda Plan. English language broadcast of CCTV-9 became available full time through Time-Warner in New York, Los Angeles, Houston and other American major cities. CCTV is also available in 14 languages. The government-controlled Xinhua News Agency opened its New York office with a large staff.

Xinhua Bookstore in Flushing, New York -- a branch of the old Chinese Communist Party propaganda apparatus. Photo courtesy of Women's Rights in China, WRIC.
Xinhua Bookstore in Flushing, New York -- a branch of the old Chinese Communist Party propaganda apparatus. Photo courtesy of Women's Rights in China, WRIC.

Xinhua Book Store, the oldest propaganda organ of the Communist Party, also expanded into cities where many expatriate Chinese live. Following the model perfected in Hong Kong, the Chinese government exerts enormous influence over almost all Chinese-language media abroad through advertising dollars and direct acquisition. Even the media outlets which originate from Taiwan routinely engage in self-censorship and collaborate with the mainland Chinese government in order to keep their connections with the Xinhua and Zhongxing news agencies and advertising income.

Many Chinese language schools, Confucian academies, and Chinese community organizations abroad became in reality conduits of Chinese government’s infiltration. Through community leaders, the Chinese government aims to influence elected leaders and other political figures outside of the Chinese community. Official and semi-official Chinese media and communication companies went public in large numbers on Wall Street, including china.com, China Telecom, 163.com, Sohu, SINA, Baidu, China Mobile, and China Unicom.

ITalkBB, a SINA subsidiary, has taken over the Internet phone market of nearly the entire Chinese American community, and serves other ethnic communities as well, by offering services at 50-90% discounts compared to the prices of its competitors. This company naturally could not escape the control of the Chinese government. Phone calls to China from many exiled dissidents and other important community leaders through ITalkBB could be monitored. In fact, many dissidents complained of their conversations with family members had been used as evidence by Chinese national security agents to threaten their families in China. Moreover, some exiled opposition groups unknowingly used web hosting services that were in fact under the Chinese government control. Internet communication that had been compromised this way could pose grave danger to dissidents in China and their families.

The Internet offers undeniable advantages. However, it cannot replace radio broadcasting. In today’s China, foreign radio broadcasts in Chinese are still a crucial source of outside information for the majority of the population who lack access to the Internet. Voice of America not only provides indispensable and truthful news reporting, it also upholds the image of the United States and is a valuable antidote to the Great Foreign Propaganda Plan of the Chinese regime. Not only would the elimination of VOA’s Chinese language service be contrary to the spirit and values of America’s Founding Fathers, it would inflict irreparable harm on generations of dissidents and advocates of freedom and democracy, and silence the most vulnerable groups in Chinese society—the women and children.

Women’s Rights in China urges the U.S. Congress and the Obama administration to face the reality of the China of today, to maintain Voice of America’s Chinese language service and to leave a legacy that could stand up to history.

Jing Zhang

Jing Zhang, former political prisoner in China, President of Women's Rights in China and Operations Director of All Girls Allowed
Jing Zhang

Jing Zhang suffered five years in prison for her belief in freedom and democracy. After leaving China, she built a career for twenty years as a newspaper editor in Hong Kong and the United States. Jing understands the trials Chinese women have to endure under one-party rule in a persistent patriarchal society.

She founded Women’s Rights in China in 2007 to popularize the concept of women’s rights and advocate for the weak and underprivileged in China. As the Operations Director of All Girls Allowed, Jing directs the projects aimed at the prevention of female infanticide, the education of abandoned female orphans, the reuniting of trafficked children with their families. She has testified multiple times in the United States Congress on behalf of AGA and WRIC on the problems of China’s One Child Policy and human trafficking. In these hearings, she also presented evidence of repression these underprivileged groups suffered in the hands of the Chinese government.

From Free Media Online

FreeMediaOnline.org Logo. FreeMediaOnline.org Truckee, CA, USA, August 9, 2011 — Free Media Online welcomes this powerful testimony from Ms. Jing Zhang, a former political prisoner in China. Her words contradict claims by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) that “almost no one” is listening in China to Voice of America shortwave broadcasts.  Only executives in charge of the agency consistently rated by the Office of Personnel Management as one of the worst-managed within the entire U.S. federal bureaucracy could come up with such ideas. At a recent hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Congressmen of both parties also rejected these claims by pointing out that people living under dictatorship are not likely to “jump in joy” and admit to survey takers that they listen to Western broadcasts. In addition to radio broadcasts to China, the BBG also wants to eliminate satellite television broadcasts. In a bipartisan rebuke to the Broadcasting Board of Governors, members of the House Foreign Relations Committee unanimously approved an amendment that would in effect prevent the BBG from ending these broadcasts. (Fox News Report: Lawmakers Scramble to Keep Voice of America On Air in China) The amendment must now be approved by the House Appropriations Committee and agreed to by the Senate.

Free Media Online president Ted Lipien said that “members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors and particularly their executive staff, who came up with this plan, could learn powerful lessons from Ms. Jing Zhang’s testimony. The Voice of America was created during World War II to provide information and offer hope to the most oppressed and disadvantaged. That should continue to be the mission of VOA and BBG rather striving for gaining greater audiences by downplaying human rights reporting and negotiating with repressive regimes, as three BBG members had done recently in Ethiopia, despite the fact that a few years earlier the Ethiopian regime charged VOA journalists working in Washington with treason and threatened them with the death penalty. The BBG then proceeded to censor VOA programs to Ethiopia and dismissed a VOA journalist who disclosed information about their dealings with the regime in Addis Ababa. As BBG officials travel around the world at taxpayers’ expense and meet with dictators — three BBG members and a large entourage went to Ethiopia — they send a message of having little regard for victims of human rights abuses. They also alienate ethnic communities in the United States. The spectacle of BBG members censoring Voice of America programs and siding with the Ethiopian regime against a VOA journalist, because the regime complained about a VOA broadcast, is unpardonable.” (Free Media Online report: Censorship at the Voice of America: Broadcasting Board of Governors Sided with the Ethiopian Regime Against VOA Journalist)

Anti-censorship protest in front of the Voice of America building.
Anti-censorship protest in front of the Voice of America building.

“This is a sign of a serious crisis within the BBG and confusion about the mission of U.S. international broadcasting. The BBG’s proposal to fire more than 40 VOA Chinese service journalists who specialize in human rights reporting shows that the BBG is turning its back on pro-democracy activists and those who like Ms. Zhang spent time in prison for their political beliefs. If China had its Lech Walesa — a poor labor union organizer without secure access to the Internet, little money, no higher education, perhaps in prison or under house arrest — BBG officials would declare him unsuitable for the Voice of America. It’s human rights activists and other dissidents like Lech Walesa in Poland in the 1970s that Ms. Zhang describes in her article. BBG executive staffers want to redirect the money saved by firing journalists to private contractors who make claims that they can undermine the Chinese regime’s control over the Internet, and yet the same consultants and contractors advising the BBG could not help BBG executives to protect VOA websites from a successful cyber attack by Iranian Islamists who managed to shut down more than 40 VOA websites for several hours and posted anti-American slogans, one of them directed at Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The BBG plan, if implemented, will make it more dangerous for dissidents to acquire news from the United States by making it easier for the Chinese cyber police to discover their identities and to monitor them more closely. Ms. Zhang refers to this threat in her article. The VOA Chinese service already has strong Internet and social media presence and can easily increase its Internet outreach at a minimal cost if the Chinese regimes should lessen web censorship. Contrary to claims by BBG executives, news websites are not expensive, that’s why there are millions of them but only a few international broadcasters. Ms. Zhang is right that the Internet has its advantages, but it cannot replace Voice of America radio and satellite television to China,” Free Media Online president Ted Lipien said.

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