Public Diplomacy: VoA then, CRI now

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United States Information Agency, 1960 – 1980s

Truth is the best propaganda and lies are the worst. To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; to be credible we must be truthful. It is as simple as that.
Edward R. Murrow », USIA, during the 1960s »

In the early 1960s, Edward Murrow, a noted American television and radio journalist, became head of the United States Information Agency (USIA). Appointed by president Kennedy, he brought at least one of McCarthy´s victims back into the ranks of the agency. Murrow himself, as a tv anchor, had started firing back at McCarthy during the 1950s and helped to bring America´s post-war anti-communist hysteria to an end. Now, he was in charge of conducting "international educational and cultural exchanges, broadcasting, and information programs".

Probably from the beginnings of the Cold War to its end, millions of people in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe listened to the USIA´s radio flagship, the Voice of America (VoA). At least when compared to what people under direct or indirect Soviet rule could hear from their local stations, news from the BBC, VoA, and other Western broadcasts could be considered accurate and reliable. Nevertheless, the VoA had its ups and downs. About twenty years after Murrow had run the USIA, Charles Wick became its director, around 1981.

Wick was not happy with the situation he inherited. For one, America´s Voice lagged far behind its main global competitor, Radio Moscow, on shortwave. The Russians operated nearly 300 transmitters, and produced more than 2000 programme hours a week in 84 languages, at estimated costs of two billion Dollars a year. VoA only operated 110 stations, with programmes in only half as many languages.
But Kenneth Tomlinson, then chairman of VoA Radio´s Broadcasting Board of Governors, had reason to be jubilant: both Charles Wick and president Ronald Reagan wanted to upgrade the VoA, and managed to convince the American Congress of funding the substantial backfittings. During the fiscal year 1983–1984, the USIA got 849,000,000 US-Dollars; 28% more than in 1983 – 281 million of which were earmarked for the VoA. About one billion Dollars was planned to be spent on modernising and expanding the transmitters in general over a period of six years. [1]

But technical progress came at a price: once again, liberal employees of the USIA had to go. Wick introduced the official, eerie VoA-Editorials which are still with us. And Reagan´s and Wick´s "truths" weren´t necessarily as efficient as the previous, more "liberal" contents. Roy Medvedev, himself a dissident historian in the Soviet Union at that time, warned American correspondents that the VoA´s sudden fierceness offended many Russians´ patriotism.[2]

The USIA was abolished in 1999, and its broadcasting functions became an independent entity under the Broadcasting Board of Governors (IBB). According to Wikipedia, the Agency had been devoted to public diplomacy.

How successful was this approach to public diplomacy? There had been good reasons for modernising the technical equipment. As for its lopsided neoconservative message however, it probably created a lot of misconceptions about America. When reading how Kang Xiaoguang reviewed the concept of liberal democracy many years later, you couldn´t help but think that his perception of American democracy had been crucially modelled by listening to Ronald Reagan´s "Voice" in the 1980s.

But Kang is not in love with the concept. No way.

China Radio International, early 21rst Century

"Public diplomacy" is a foreign concept in China. Chinese more usually use the term dui wai xuan chuan or wai xuan (external propaganda) and emphasize advertising Chinese achievements and boosting the country´s image overseas.
Yiwei Wang, Fudan University, March 2008

Wang [3] is aware of China Radio International´s role in public diplomacy, and mentions it in his paper quoted above. "China Radio International (CRI) ... as well as other agencies, use all kinds of ways to introduce Chinese development and policies to the world and help foreign audiences understand China." But he also quotes a third source which says that "it will be some time before the Chinese mass media, with its lack of competitiveness caused by strict government restrictions on the media, can start winning large audiences abroad" (a quote from a Waseda University paper of 2004).

China Radio International is probably about as entertaining as the Voice of America. But it is sort of strange to know that Tibet is making headlines worldwide, while CRI´s English programme is discussing the effects of junk food on consumers. (To be fair, CRI does mention the hotter topics in the news, but never without an immediate choice of lopsided quotes from officials or public authorities attached to it.) To blame CRI´s competitive disadvantage on a global scale on a "hegemony of discourse, since most of the world´s news is expressed within the framework of Western concepts and ideology and dominated by the English-language media"[4] may not be all inaccurate, but denies the station´s more fundamental credibility problems.

Once a foreign listener knows that CRI´s country of origin extensively controls its citizens´s access to news from abroad, the radio station is automatically losing credit. News censorship mirrors a country´s political condition, rather than its culture.
As far as release and wording of political news is concerned, hardly anything is left to chance by the Chinese authorities.[5] Most foreign listeners probably realise that.

From Shortwave to the Internet

When it is about public diplomacy, listening to a handful of international broadcasters, ten minutes a day, is probably still more telling than reading dozens of personal websites or blogs. After all, most blogs and personal websites are just that – personal. So far, the big media organisations still set the tune of global perception.

But the internet is becoming important, even if you only want to listen to foreign radio. In Europe, many classical international broadcasters are no longer available on shortwave. Interestingly, China Radio International is. Every morning, you can listen to their relay station from Albania[6]. In Chinese, and in English.

[1] Der Spiegel, No. 13, 1984, page 160-163
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[2] Der Spiegel, same as above.
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[3] Yiwei Wang, Fudan University Center for American Studies, Diplomacy and the Rise of Chinese Soft Power, March 2008.
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[4] Yiwei Wang, p. 9
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[5] Aoyama Rumi, Chinese Diplomacy in the Multimedia Age: Public Diplomacy and Civil Diplomacy, Dec 2004      » source
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[6] Relay broadcasts from Albania: 6020 kHz and 9570 kHz (update Jun 20, 2008).
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External links

American public diplomacy
Second half of the page: VoR output compared to other broadcasters – 1950s to 1996.

Ronald Reagan: "We´re as far behind the Soviets ... in international broadcasting today as we were in space when they launched sputnik in 1957", Sept 10, 1983

British public diplomacy
Simon Jenkins "Russia´s assault on the British Council reveals the true nature of diplomacy", Jan 18, 2008

Chinese public diplomacy
"People who do research in the country want continuing access. There is a tendency not to do anything that will threaten your ability to get access", Jun 21, 2008

Mechanisms that have served China´s government ... don´t translate well to International audiences, Mar 19, 2008

[Edgar Snow´s Red Star over China] "became a powerful weapon against Kuomintang's news blackout", Oct 22, 2006
China Daily

Edgar Snow

Nothing is left to chance: China´s external and internal propaganda, Dec 2004

VoA and CRI on shortwave
VoA English frequencies

VoA Chinese frequencies

CRI English frequencies

CRI Chinese frequencies
CRI schedule mostly in Peking time (UTC plus 8 hours)

Transmitters 1984
Numbers of transmitters in 1984: Radio Moscow, VoA, BBC London, Radio Peking

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