After 5 Years of Political Wrangling, Radio Free Asia Becomes a Reality

Over the weekend, America took a little-noticed but far-reaching step in its policy toward Asia--one that is likely to arouse the ire of China, Myanmar (Burma) and other repressive governments.

Radio Free Asia went on the air.

The new broadcast station, created by Congress to serve as an Asian counterpart to Radio Free Europe, started modestly and quietly Sunday, with a half-hour news broadcast to China. Plans are for the program to be aired each day at 7 a.m. (local time) in China, and then updated and repeated at 11 p.m.

Low-key though it may be, the broadcast effort is a milestone. It ends five years of wrangling in Washington over the wisdom and the tactics of trying to promote democratic values across the Pacific. Radio Free Asia is now a reality, not just a concept or symbol.

During the next year, Radio Free Asia will not only expand its Chinese broadcasts to five hours a day, but also will begin transmitting programs to Tibet, Myanmar and, eventually, North Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. All these programs will be broadcast in the languages of the target countries.

In the week before its initial broadcast, the radio service suffered its way through one more bruising Washington political battle--a final reminder of how contentious the creation of Radio Free Asia has been.

The directors of the station had wanted to broadcast under a different name: the Asia-Pacific Network. They figured that this name might have a less combative ring than Radio Free Asia, which evokes memories of the fiercely anti-communist role that Radio Free Europe played during the ideological struggles with the Soviet Union.

Some Republican leaders on Capitol Hill did not like the name change. "We must have the courage to confront tyranny, and to do so under the banner of freedom," thundered Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) at a congressional hearing.

Finally, the Republicans' heaviest hitter, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), insisted that the name be changed back to Radio Free Asia before the service went on the air. Helms was in a position to get his way: Although Radio Free Asia operates under an independent board, its money, $10 million a year at the start, comes from the Treasury.

"It was, by statute, named Radio Free Asia for a purpose," explained Marc Thiessen, a spokesman for Helms. "It was supposed to confront totalitarian ideology in Asia, the same way Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty combated totalitarian rule in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union."

And so, last Wednesday, the service returned to its maiden name. Asia-Pacific Network became Radio Free Asia once again. "We were instructed to change the name back," Richard Richter, president of the service, said in an interview, making it plain that this wasn't his own choice.

In the long run, the name change may not matter much in Beijing. China's Communist leadership is likely to take greater umbrage over the service's editorial content.

Radio Free Asia is designed to provide different programming from what is now broadcast by the Voice of America. VOA provides worldwide news and, sometimes, editorials that reflect the viewpoint of the U.S. government. Radio Free Asia has no editorials. Instead it will concentrate heavily on the local news of the countries to which it is broadcast.

Take the case of Tibet. Radio Free Asia officials say that only about 20% of VOA's programming there is actually about Tibet and its surroundings; the other 80% is news from around the world. But on Radio Free Asia, that ratio will be reversed; 80% of the news will be about Tibet itself.

"We're not going to tell them [people in Tibet] about Bosnia," said Daniel Southerland, a former Washington Post correspondent who serves as Radio Free Asia's vice president of programming.

Moreover, Radio Free Asia will also provide a forum for the sort of open debate, and competing political viewpoints, that a free press would provide in a democracy.

In China, listeners will be offered the views of critics of the regime, exiles and dissidents. One of Radio Free Asia's regular commentators will be Liu Binyan, the journalist and writer who has made a career of exposing official corruption within the Chinese Communist Party.

Liu, once a protege of Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang, was expelled from the party in 1987 and has been living in exile for most of the past decade.

Radio Free Asia has also prepared a series of interviews with Dai Qing, the Chinese writer who, for years, has been crusading against the massive Three Gorges Dam, arguing that it will cause serious environmental damage. The dam, to be built along the Yangtze River, has been a pet project of, among others, China's Premier Li Peng.

Not all of the programming will carry a political edge. There will be soft news too. One regular feature will be a letter home to Shanghai from a Chinese college student in the United States. In America, she tells her Chinese listeners, people ride bicycles mainly for exercise, not as a means of transportation. And you have to wear a helmet.

How much of this broadcasting will get through to China is unclear.

"We anticipate being jammed," Richter said. For many years, China has been jamming VOA's broadcasts. Repeated attempts by the Bush and the Clinton administrations to negotiate an end to the jamming have failed.

Still, the VOA broadcasts have often managed to get through by switching times and locations, and Radio Free Asia officials say they expect they will be able to do so too.

They are secretive about the locations from which the broadcasts will be transmitted. Radio Free Asia's programs will originate in Washington, but they will be sent through transmitters in the Pacific region--both from American territorial islands such as Guam and Saipan and, Richter says vaguely, from the Asian mainland.

Ultimately, Radio Free Asia's success or failure will depend on the extent to which it gets the money and the political support it needs in Washington.

The new service represents a long-term approach to fostering openness and democracy in Asia; it is an effort to combat repression indirectly, by disseminating information rather than by making threats.

That is extraordinarily important at a time when thoughtful human rights officials are beginning to acknowledge that international pressure is having little immediate impact on countries like China.

"We're not going to make much of a dent in things in China for the next five or 10 years," said Robin Munro, the Hong Kong representative for Human Rights Watch/Asia, who has been seeking for years to help win some freedom for Chinese dissidents. "The forces arrayed against us are so much more massive than anything we can muster."

Four years ago, during his first campaign for the White House, President Clinton offered an especially strong justification for the creation of Radio Free Asia.

"Now that the iron curtain has come down, we have eloquent testimony from Lech Walesa, Boris Yeltsin, Vaclav Havel and countless others that this type of broadcasting played an even more important role in freedom's triumph than we had imagined," he said in a campaign statement on Sept. 16, 1992. "It sustained the spirit of those yearning for liberty and uncensored news about what was happening in their own countries. [Radio Free Asia] will be a cost-effective and peaceful means to encourage the growth of democracy and freedom throughout Asia."

Clinton's overall approach to China is different now. But he reaffirmed his support for Radio Free Asia only two years ago. When he abandoned his effort to use trade benefits as a lever to win improvements in human rights, Clinton listed a series of other approaches he would rely on to achieve the same goal. Radio Free Asia was high on that list.

The president's commitment is likely to be tested during the next few months. Chances are that sooner or later, China will be launching furious protests about the Radio Free Asia broadcasts. The White House ought to have its answers ready.

The International Outlook column appears here every other Monday.

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