Of the countries that present the greatest foreign policy challenges to the U.S. and will do so in the decades to come, China has to be close to the top of the list, if not number one. Every day brings a new gantlet thrown down by China to American leadership. Thursday, it was of China’s launch of a rocket containing elements of its new space laboratory, images that will be exploited to their full potential in the service of Chinese public diplomacy.
This is why the decision of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) to shut down Voice of America’s (VOA) shortwave radio and satellite TV broadcasts to China in the BBG’s 2012 budget caused a tremendous stir when it was announced on February 14. It was a valentine the Chinese leadership was only too happy to receive as sign of U.S. retreat and decline.
At a budget savings of $8 million, 45 positions in VOA’s Cantonese and Mandarin language services were to be eliminated, leaving VOA to China as a Web-based presence and conferring remaining shortwave channels to Radio Free Asia (which is also owned by the U.S. government but serves a different purpose than VOA).
Considering that China itself is engaged in an aggressive global media drive, funded to the tune of almost $7 billion, and considering that China is among the world’s most controlled Internet markets, the decision caused widespread alarm on Capitol Hill and among groups concerned with Chinese democracy and human rights—not to mention U.S. foreign policy and global leadership.
This week, the Senate stepped in to put a break on the BBG’s plans. In its markup of the State Department’s 2012 appropriations bill, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted to include funds for China broadcasting in the overall $754 million budget of the BBG.
This action followed markup of the bill in the House in August that set aside $12.3 million for China broadcasting, according to an amendment by Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R–CA).
For the moment, it appears that Congress has prevented the BBG from making a huge strategic mistake. Thursday morning, the staff of the VOA Chinese service received an e-mail from recently appointed VOA director David Ensor stating that the cuts in staff planned for October 1 would not take place.
The language of the appropriations bill is tough on the BBG. “The Committee is concerned with the lack of transparency regarding the ‘optimize BBG transmission’ proposal included in the fiscal year 2012 Congressional Budget Justification which states that this proposal includes ‘various efficiencies and realignments of the BBG’s worldwide transmission network.’”
Behind these rather vague outlines lie not only the end of broadcasting to the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan but also reductions in short and medium transmissions to Russia, Iran, North Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq. The bill states:
While the Committee recognizes that VOA English language and cultural programs are reaching audiences, particularly youth, via the Internet in the PRC, the Committee is concerned with the lack of clarity about the impact of the China broadcast restructuring proposal on all VOA radio and television programs broadcast to the PRC and Taiwan, and the lack of transparency of the “optimize BBG transmission” proposal. The Committee does not support either proposal and includes funding for the continuation of these broadcasts and transmissions.
The committee sternly “directs the BBG to notify the Committee when BBG broadcast hours are reduced or increased and when transmission platforms are changed.” This effectively means micromanaging the executive decisions of the BBG—not the most effective way of running a broadcasting business for sure, but suggestive of the widespread lack of distrust of the BBG on the Hill.
As an organization detached from State or any other government agency, the BBG has operated with a level of unaccountability that cries out to be addressed. In surveys of job satisfaction among federal employees (including the just-released Office of Personnel Management survey), the BBG ranks 37th out of 37 government agencies, in part because the staff is consistently mystified by management decisions. The BBG’s new communications director, hired to cope with the fallout of the China cuts and reach out to think tanks, announced on Tuesday that she would be leaving as of October 7 after just a few months on the job.
Close congressional oversight would be a good beginning, and the long-term objective should be reintegration of the BBG into the U.S. government’s foreign policy strategy and organization. The firewall of independence from day-to-day political influence that the BBG was designed to represent has too often become a justification for rebuffing legitimate congressional concerns or even State Department priorities. As the BBG moves forward with its strategic review and planning, it is clear now that Congress should be a partner.