The West's voices of propaganda are falling to a whisper

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 February, 2011, 12:00am

Many mainlanders in their 30s or older, including this writer, have pressed their ears against transistor radios in the middle of the night, back in the 1970s and 1980s, to tune into Voice of America's shortwave frequencies for its popular English-language learning programme, English 900, and current affairs reports.

Until the early 1990s, VOA's Mandarin programme, along with a similar but far less influential one broadcast by the BBC World Service, was probably mainlanders' only regular source of the outside world's views on international events and, more importantly, what was really happening on the mainland.

During the students' pro-democracy protests in June 1989, it was common in many cities for mainlanders to be seen in the streets, clustered around transistor radios and listening to VOA's news reports, interviews and commentaries on events leading to the bloody crackdown.

Mainland authorities have long labelled the VOA as 'enemy broadcasting' and threatened harsh punishment including jail sentences for mainland listeners, in addition to constant jamming. Following the crackdown on June 4, 1989, Xinhua openly accused VOA, among other international media organisations, of inflaming anti-government sentiment.

All of this explains why the reports last week that the VOA was planning to cut back its shortwave broadcasts in China produced mixed feelings among mainlanders and abroad. This follows a similar proposal by the BBC World Service to close five of its language services, including Mandarin radio programming.

Of course, those cutbacks reflect the pressure on the US and British governments to slash spending in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. Another reason is that their audiences are shrinking considerably as the influence of new media including social networking continues to rise.

However, most people appear to have ignored the more important reason - that those cutbacks may reflect the decline of blatant government-sponsored propaganda. This should serve as a lesson for the Chinese government, which is spending billions of yuan to expand its reach to the four corners of the world.

Created in 1942, during the second world war, VOA, along with its sister networks such as Radio Free Europe and Radio Free Asia, is fully funded by the US government and aims to promote American values and views around the world.

VOA, just like the BBC, likes to argue that, although it is fully supported by the American government, it maintains its editorial independence.

But the truth remains that it has always been the propaganda arm of the US government, a fact highlighted by the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, which forbids the VOA from broadcasting directly to American citizens. The intention of the law is to protect the American public from the propaganda of its own government.

Understandably, the mainland media have gleefully reported the VOA's and BBC's cutbacks, describing these decisions as marking the end of an era. From their perspective, mainland officials have rightly deemed VOA broadcasting as part of the American government's efforts to promote 'peaceful evolution', or democratic principles, on the mainland.

The conservatives in the US and Britain have decried the cutbacks, particularly at a time when Beijing is expanding its propaganda operations.

Xinhua has launched a 24-hour English-language news channel, CNC World, and CCTV plans to have 11 international channels by the end of next year.

The contrast between cash-rich China's expansion of influence and the cutbacks by the cash-strapped US and British governments is indeed thought-provoking. This may well strengthen anti-communist paranoia in the West about the rise of the mainland's economy and influence in the world.

But few seem to question the effectiveness of the government-sponsored propaganda. There is good reason to believe that VOA's audiences have fallen to about 300,000 on the mainland. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, its appeal was stronger and wider because mainlanders had nothing which gave a different view.

Nowadays, in this age of internet chat rooms, blogging and social networking, mainlanders have a wide range of choices from which to find out what is happening at home and abroad. Those tools have helped open up their horizons and make them more sophisticated and better informed.

If they don't buy the propaganda from their own government, they have enough sophistication to dismiss the American government's propaganda. For instance, the VOA said it would focus on transmitting news through the internet and smart phones, but its internet audience was reportedly even smaller than its radio service's, at around 200,000 on the mainland.

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