When Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng landed in the United States on May 19th, there were cheers from people who had watched in anticipation as his struggle with the Chinese government unfolded in the western media.
That Chen Guangcheng is able to study law in New York is very good news, but his struggle to reach the West on terms acceptable to him is a cautionary tale: one that underscores the continued importance of international broadcasters like the Voice of America.
Chen’s improbable story: a blind, self-taught lawyer who fights for human rights and somehow managed to flee house arrest and take refuge at the U.S. Embassy, has been front page news just about everywhere in the world: everywhere except in China.
A search of China’s English language CCTV website, which describes itself as “the national TV station of the People’s Republic of China,” yields a handful of brief references to Chen Guangcheng. Most are ministry statements demanding the U.S. apologize for interfering in the case.
By contrast, Voice of America’s Mandarin Service was one of the first international media outlets to report Chen had escaped, and our coverage has been extensive. VOA interviewed the wife of his brother, Chen Guangfu, who was beaten and detained following the escape. There were also exclusive interviews with the woman who aided Chen, with Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ), Chairman of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, and with Chen Guangcheng himself, who spoke to VOA repeatedly, including on live Mandarin language TV broadcasts.
Chen has thanked VOA for reporting on his case, and said he listened to Voice of America while under house arrest at home in Shandong and in the Beijing hospital when he was being treated for the injuries sustained during his escape. Asked how he had managed to hear the broadcasts, he said, "There's always a way!"
Making sure there always is a way, and that more of the Chinese people have access to unfettered news, is not easy. VOA and other broadcasters work hard, with limited resources, to overcome restrictions such as shortwave radio jamming and efforts to filter and block the Internet.
Unlike well-funded Chinese state television, which has been opening bureaus around the world, including a shiny new one in Washington D.C. with dozens of journalists, VOA is currently allowed only two accredited reporters in all of China. Our longtime standing request for four journalist visas, including one for Shanghai, goes unanswered by Beijing.
Despite these obstacles, we are reaching people like Mr. Chen, with information they care about. These efforts cost money, and while China spends billions on an expanding global media empire, we face both increasing costs and tight budgets.
By some estimates, China will spend about $8 billion in the next couple of years to expand international radio and TV broadcasts, as well as the Xinhua News Agency, and its flagship newspaper, the People’s Daily.
By contrast, the United States government spends about $750 million on its entire international broadcasting and media effort, which includes the Voice of America, Radio Free Asia and other stations reaching 187 million people in 59 languages around the globe.
Spending comparisons, though imperfect, do raise important questions: is the United States doing enough to effectively penetrate restricted media environments like China’s with uncensored information? What is the most effective way to reach that audience?
We need to do more, and we are gearing up to do so. The Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees VOA, RFA and others, recently voted to recommend to Congress that spending on programming to China be held at present levels, despite budget tightening, and development of a more robust overall strategy for U.S. efforts to reach audiences in Mandarin, Cantonese, Tibetan and Uighur.
The best way to reach more people in China today may be satellite TV and radio, since more than ten percent of the population has a satellite dish or access to programming from one. VOA currently offers programming on shortwave radio, satellite radio and TV and the Internet, in addition to social media. Soon, VOA will launch a new expanded two-hour daily satellite television program in Mandarin. The U.S. also works creatively to limit the impact of Chinese government efforts to censor international news sites on the Internet.
We cannot, and we do not need to match China dollar for dollar. No matter how many billions they spend, the audience knows that CCTV does not offer objective news or a platform for open discussion. There will always be an audience that does not want to be told what to think.
What we can do, is to match China’s “soft power” push to influence global public opinion, with a renewed and reinvigorated effort to reach more of the Chinese people with balanced, informative programming, and responsible discussion about the issues that affect us all.