Voice Of America’s China Broadcasts Threatened by Budget Cuts, Solar Flares

The Wall Street Journal reports the proposed elimination of Chinese broadcasts by Voice of America, in order to save funds which will be redirected toward online media. The announcement comes soon after the unveiling of similar cuts by the BBC World Service.

The 2012 budget proposal submitted to Congress this week would end VOA’s Mandarin-language short-wave radio broadcasts, focusing instead on transmitting news through the Internet and mobile phones. The U.S. would continue broadcasting in Chinese by bolstering Radio Free Asia’s Mandarin-language broadcasts.

The move is a reflection of both budget pressures and changing technology. The U.S. is rethinking how it can best promote democracy around the world in the wake of the revolts in the Middle East that were spurred in part by social networking.

Initially created during the Second World War, the Voice of America and sister networks such as Radio Free Europe and Radio Free Asia were part of the government-sponsored effort to promote U.S. values around the world, especially during the Cold War.

While moving online may appear to make VOA’s message more vulnerable to Chinese censorship, shortwave is itself not immune to interference. The Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees VOA, has described jamming of shortwave broadcasts by China as “an ongoing problem”. Inharmonious foreign radio is routinely drowned out by Firedrake, a notorious (at least among radio enthusiasts) and extremely powerful transmission of loud Chinese classical music whose drums and strings overwhelm other signals. This jamming has helped limit VOA’s Chinese listenership, which amounts to just 0.1% of the population, according to the latest audience survey.

Nevertheless, cutting the broadcasts has attracted some strong criticism. From the Taipei Times:

“Shocking and idiotic,” said Arthur Waldron, professor of international relations at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on China [and author of The Great Wall of China: From History to Myth].

“Information is our strong point. As true news about China comes out, it will be easier for us to deal with them. Radios are very effective indeed at shaping public opinion,” he said.

“I would think this was bad satire, but I fear it is true. It shows a complete lack of understanding of the world situation and correlation of forces,” Waldron said.

More immediate disruption to shortwave broadcasts has come this week from electromagnetic interference caused by solar flares, reported by Xinhua.