BBG discovers that VOA is already present on Internet in China* *as allowed by Chinese Internet police

This is a guest commentary for the Hot Tub Blog by Ted Lipien, president of Free Media Online and former VOA acting associate director.

BBG member Dana Perino noticed and The Washington Post wrote about it (funny how these stories appear in U.S. media before each BBG board meeting). It is one of many great successes of the Voice of America China Branch, but it’s not one that defines the primary role U.S. government-funded broadcasts to countries without free media.

From the BBG press release:

The 24-year-old host of “OMG Meiyu,” a trendy, cross cultural English teaching feature produced by Voice of America’s Mandarin Service, has become an overnight sensation in China, where viewers are flocking to social media sites to see her idiomatic lesson called “Yucky Gunk.”

More than 2 million people have now clicked on Jessica Beinecke’s quirky videos, which teach Chinese speakers about common English expressions used by young Americans. “Yucky Gunk,” one “OMG Meiyu” feature (in Mandarin “meiyu” means American English), has been viewed more than 1.4 million times.

Yes, BBG members (I’m not even bothering to mention the executive staff), journalists working at VOA already produce great web content for young and old audiences in China. Jessica Beinecke is fantastic. But don’t be confused. Her videos are allowed on the Chinese Internet because they cause no great harm.

Of course, such programs should continue, but your executive staff’s idea that 45 VOA Chinese Branch journalists should be fired to do more of such programs is both ridiculous and aims for quite a different goal than what they say.

Keep in mind that VOA and U.S. international broadcasting were not established to do nothing else but to teach English or provide programs about health. That’s not what VOA was doing during WWII and during the Cold War. Believe me, in this budget crisis, this is not what American taxpayers and the U.S. Congress will tolerate.

Don’t get me wrong. Americans and their representatives in Congress are not stupid. They understand the value of community building and community service radio and TV programming, such as Willis Conover’s jazz programs during the Cold War and Jessica Beinecke’s English teaching videos. But they will fund them only in the context of a well-designed strategy to provide news, American commentary, and hope to victims of repressive regimes. This is what the mission of U.S. international broadcasting has always been all about.

Seriously, you can’t say that VOA will be doing soft programming for China that the Chinese regime might allow on the Internet while Radio Free Asia will be doing hard news reporting on shortwave. First of all, the Voice of America is the voice of America for audiences abroad, and America vis-a-vis China is not only about teaching English and being inoffensive to the Chinese rulers. As good and as needed as RFA surrogate programs are, don’t forget that VOA is far better known and respected in China. (Even your own research shows that.)

Do listen to Chinese human rights activists, human rights organizations, and many others who have told you that victims of the Chinese regime and those who want democratic reforms in their countries do listen to VOA on shortwave and watch its news programs on satellite TV. Influential members of Congress with many years of experience in foreign affairs have told you the same thing and voted to block the program cutting plan for China that your staff came up with shortly before the outbreak of the Jasmine revolution.

Instead of listening to your advisors who have never experienced life under communism, do listen instead to the wife of imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. During a five-minute reprieve from the usual Internet isolation imposed on her, Liu Xia wrote a friend that she is “miserable.”

“Can’t go out. My whole family are hostages,” Liu Xia wrote, as The Washington Post’s Keith B. Richburg reported last month. “I don’t know how I managed to get online,” she also wrote. “Don’t go online. Otherwise my whole family is in danger.

Read what Ms. Jing Zhang, a former Chinese political prisoner and current president of Women’s Rights in China wrote for Free Media Online:

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.

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.

There is no doubt that Voice of America’s broadcasts 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.

Jing Zhang suffered five years in prison for her belief in freedom and democracy. I think she knows more about Westen media use in China and what kind of programming is needed than your executive staff. Read more.

We’ll try to make it very simple. Your marketing strategy completely ignores the essential mission of U.S. international broadcasting — providing uncensored news, ideas and hope to those living under oppressive regimes.

We know it is tempting to go for an easy solution to building up a mass audience. You can always do it if you make your programs so innocuous that regimes in China, Ethiopia, Russia and elsewhere will welcome them on their national networks and stop filtering them from the Internet.

One of you Board members said that “almost no one” in China listens to VOA on shortwave. It may be true that the numbers are not large, although far larger than you think. What is important is who listens and to what.

Had anybody in the West heard of Lech Walesa before the 1980 strikes in Poland and the creation of the Solidarity labor union? He was the kind of person your current marketing strategy completely ignores. Slightly older, without higher level of education, non-English speaker, and without access to the latest communications technology. The same is true for hundreds of millions of people in China. It may take years or decades, but Lech Walesas of China will sooner or later thank you for not letting them down. Believe me, when I was in charge of VOA’s Polish Service there were those who said that we should make our programs less offensive to the communist regime. Good thing we didn’t.

This brings me to my final point and “OMG Meiyu” — a program that deserves great praise and continued support. But this program and many other things that the VOA Chinese Branch has been doing for years expose the falseness of the claims of your executives that VOA programming for China is somewhat deficient and that 45 journalists who specialize in human rights need to go so that your staff can hire more private consultants and contractors while also beefing up the number of their own administrative positions. Nobody should be fooled. This is not about improving the VOA China Branch but about making it ineffective as a U.S. international broadcaster in China while preserving the future of RFA. That’s how bureaucrats think and act.

The irony in this whole charade is that Radio Free Asia should not need this kind of help. If it does its job right and provides really hard-hitting surrogate news and commentary, it will also have an audience in China — perhaps small but in the long run quite influential. Keep in mind that previous board members and their executives concluded that Radio Liberty programs to Russia were too hostile.

Final word of advice. Stick to hard news, maintain the human rights focus and stop obsessing about winning the approval of undemocratic regimes. They won’t let you on their airwaves and their Internet networks unless you give up on your original mission. Don’t do it.

By the way, congratulations on your latest statement in defense of press freedom in various countries. It is the strongest one ever in years. Ignore your marketing advisors, stick with this kind of approach, read the BBG Watch Hot Tub Blog (they’ve done a great job), and you won’t go wrong.

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