The proposal to shut down the Voice of America's Chinese radio and TV services later this year came under heavy criticism Wednesday at a conservative Washington research institute. But, a number of Western broadcasters are focusing on China's growing Internet audience.
The changes were announced several months ago by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the U.S. agency in charge of government-funded foreign broadcasting, including the Voice of America.
The BBG said it would shut down VOA's Chinese radio and television broadcasts while making its Mandarin-language service available only on the Internet. Forty-five journalists, or more than half of the branch's full-time staff, will be let go.
Zhang Huchen is the Mandarin service's senior editor. He was part of a panel at the conservative Heritage Foundation that criticized the planned cuts. "If approved by the Congress, this decision will be the biggest blunder yet in the history of U.S. international broadcasting and public diplomacy," he said.
Zhang said that for years, Beijing has spent millions of dollars trying to jam Western shortwave broadcasts, including VOA's. "Why give the Chinese government a gift of this magnitude by unilaterally abdicating the airwaves," he said.
He added that the Chinese government is spending billions of dollars to boost its own overseas broadcasting, while censoring its domestic Internet.
Another critic on the panel was former VOA director David Jackson. He said China's efforts to obstruct VOA programming are a sign of success. "If people weren't listening to us, they wouldn't be jamming us," he said.
Still, the VOA's decision is not unique. In March, the British Broadcasting Corporation shut down its Mandarin radio service after nearly 70 years of broadcasts. Germany's Deutsche Welle also is scaling back.
International broadcasters say they are making a strategic decision to reach China's Internet audience. It is the world's largest, even though most Chinese still do not have access to the web.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors says it would make the frequencies of VOA's Chinese broadcasts available to Radio Free Asia, which it also oversees. However, critics say RFA has less name recognition in China and its mission differs from VOA's.
A spokeswoman for the Broadcasting Board of Governers, Letitia King, attended the discussion at the Heritage Foundation. "The Broadcasting Board of Governors believes China is a vitally important audience and, in fact, is fully committed to reaching the audience there as effectively as possible," she said. Click here to read full text of VOA budget proposal on China.
She said the board is developing anti-censorship technology to prevent VOA's Chinese website from being blocked.