US launches new Mandarin network as Washington and Beijing battle for global influence

Mark Magnier

The US government is planning a major new Mandarin-language initiative in an effort to bolster its global reputation at a time of Chinese ascendancy and eroding American soft power.

According to internal memos, job placement advertisements and interviews with people close to Washington’s information arms, Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Asia (RFA) are joining forces on a new network called Global Mandarin.

Its annual budget would be between US$5 million and US$10 million, potentially rising in the second year, according to a source who requested anonymity given links to the networks, with the focus on softer content aimed at reaching younger Chinese in the US, China and beyond.

This follows a recent reorganisation and rebranding of US government information efforts. In 2017, VOA, RFA and other networks were put under the newly created US Agency for Global Media, an independent federal agency whose mission is to “inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy”.

Voice of America, Radio Free Asia and other networks are now part of the US Agency for Global Media. Image: Twitter

According to a VOA memo to staff in September, the two US-funded services will gradually build out the new “digital brand” as an alternative to People’s Republic of China state media, “which promotes PRC narratives, values and misinformation”, it said.

Job listings for the new initiative describe it as a network operating 24/7 over social media, the internet, broadcast platforms and video channels. The project will combine the resources of various US government-funded media, in keeping with the agency’s new focus, to develop “platform-appropriate” Mandarin content. Its director will earn up to US$166,500 in part to “develop programming strategies that deliver to Chinese audiences”.

An RFA job listing adds that the focus would be on “independent information” presented from varied perspectives.

When reached for comment, executives at VOA and RFA referred questions to the US Agency for Global Media, which did not respond. Not immediately clear is how Global Mandarin would differ from existing Mandarin-language programming, how it expects to penetrate China’s firewall, how RFA and VOA would cooperate, how many new staff members will be hired and how exactly it would promote “freedom and democracy”.

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The September memo said the new project was part of the agency’s new focus “more on language vs. country” echoing Current Time and VOA 365.

Current Time, launched in 2014 and transformed in 2017, is a 24/7 Russian-language channel with “a rich mix of unique feature and documentary programming from Russia, Ukraine, the Baltics and beyond”, according to promotional material.

VOA 365 is a Persian-language network, broadcasting continuously, that debuted in January 2018. It targets younger Iranians worldwide and promotes its “balanced and comprehensive, objective and consistent” content over mobile television, radio, Instagram, Facebook, telegram covering human rights, foreign policy, women’s rights and other topics.

On Thursday, the US Agency for Global Media released its annual results, which indicated that Chinese tuning in weekly to VOA and RFA rose a combined 6.2 per cent in 2018, amounting to 65.4 million viewers and listeners. The report said demand tended to rise at times when major news events were censored, including “massive incarceration of Muslim minorities and interference in Taiwan and in Hong Kong affairs that were unreported domestically”.

The US roll-out of Global Mandarin comes as the administration of Chinese President Xi Jinping tightens its grip on information at home and increasingly turns its gaze overseas. Since 2009, Beijing has spent at least US$6.6 billion to promote its world view in English and dozens of other languages. “Wherever the readers are, wherever the viewers are, that is where propaganda reports must extend their tentacles,” Xi told state media in 2016.

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In recent years, China has rebranded its foreign-language broadcasting as China Global Television Network, combining it with China Radio International and China National Radio into Voice of China. Various networks now broadcast in at least 140 countries and 65 languages with increased social media presence on platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, which are banned in China.

A June media trends report by the civic group Freedom House said the Chinese Communist Party was increasingly undercutting global democratic governance by “interfering with Chinese diaspora communities, weakening the rule of law and establishing channels for political meddling”. The report cited Beijing’s bid last summer to convince American farmers to oppose US President Donald Trump’s trade policies.

The bitter trade war, growing suspicion on both sides of the Pacific and stiffer investment, education and visa restrictions have pushed the battle for global influence increasingly toward Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia.

Washington is right to focus on reaching younger Mandarin speakers globally, analysts say, given the furious backlash recently over a single tweet by the general manager of the NBA’s Houston Rockets sympathetic toward Hong Kong protesters and broader Chinese anger toward demonstrators in the territory.

“The smart money in Washington is on the long-term problem being China, the short-term being Russia,” said Nicholas Cull, professor of public diplomacy at the University of Southern California (USC) Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

“US soft power has slipped because of the US election and recent government policies,” although most people in other countries would still rather live in the US than China, said Cull, author of The Decline and Fall of the United States Information Agency: American Public Diplomacy, 1989-2001.

Soft power is a country’s ability to attract and co-opt, rather than coerce.

In 2019, US soft power slipped to No 5 globally, according to the Soft Power 30 index compiled by USC and the Portland consultancy, down from No 1 in 2016, the year before Trump took office. The index cites the administration’s trade wars with close partners and its questioning of long-standing security alliances as reasons for the decline.

“Clearly there is still much to admire about the US, but ‘America first’ is unlikely to win many hearts and minds abroad,” said explanatory text accompanying the index. “It is hard to imagine a change of direction, and no amount of tweaking or messaging is going to reverse America’s soft power decline.”

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During the same period, China edged up in the rankings to No 27 from No 28 as its culture, sports and education activities counterbalanced its handling of the Hong Kong protests, mass detention of Uygurs in Xinjiang and expansion in the South China Sea, the text said.

While programmes such as Global Mandarin may help improve America’s reputation abroad, they only go so far, analysts say.

“What Chinese always looked at with admiration was not only our openness, but our ability to invent the future. That’s the best antidote to any [improved Chinese] soft power,” said Damien Ma, director of the Paulson Institute’s think tank and author of In Line Behind a Billion People: How Scarcity Will Define China’s Ascent in the Next Decade. “We have come up with a better approach.”

While a detailed Global Mandarin blueprint has not been released, any such initiative faces significant challenges, analysts said.

“It makes sense to me that those parts of the US supportive media world would want to evolve beyond what they’ve had for a long time,” said Graham Webster, editor in chief of DigiChina, a project by the Stanford University Cyber Policy Centre and the New America think tank that tracks China’s digital policy.

“Given the baseline of censorship on Chinese social media, I’d guess the would-be circulation for VOA or RFA content would be quite limited on the mainland.”

Voice of America’s headquarters in Washington.

In Thursday’s report, the US media agency promotes its use of “circumvention technology” and “peer-to-peer social media technology” to get around censorship.

The Chinese embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment about the new US initiative.

Reaching Mandarin speakers outside China means grappling with the omnipresence of Chinese messaging app WeChat with its estimated 1 billion monthly mainland and 170 million foreign users, which Beijing can effectively censor worldwide.

“You have to go meet them where they are and if you’re not on WeChat, that’s a problem” as are other global platforms, said Xiao Qiang, director of the Counter-Power Lab at the University of California at Berkeley, which studies censorship and ways to circumvent it.

“Twitter and Facebook, from my observation, the Chinese [content] is highly polluted, filled with trolls, users with disguised identity. It’s difficult to get through such noise.”

I don’t think I’ve ever looked at propagandists who don’t think they’re countering propaganda

Nicholas Cull, professor of public diplomacy at the University of Southern California

Beijing also is increasingly effective at controlling Mandarin speakers beyond its borders, others said.

“The pressure on Chinese students from the Chinese embassy or Chinese consulate or Chinese student associations to toe the Chinese government line, that pressure is intense,” said Leta Hong Fincher, former VOA China correspondent and author of Betraying Big Brother: the Feminist Awakening in China.

“This is something that a lot of American, British, Australian universities have to grapple with, a really big issue,” said Hong Fincher, who said she had no particular knowledge of the Global Mandarin initiative.

Nor is it clear how Global Mandarin will differ from VOA’s existing Mandarin service, which already includes coverage of American culture, everyday life, entertainment, sports and English-language instruction.

Global Mandarin is the latest round in a long wrestling match between Beijing and Washington over information, each side convinced truth is on their side.

“I don’t think I’ve ever looked at propagandists who don’t think they’re countering propaganda,” Cull said.

VOA stepped up its broadcasting during the cold war to counter Communist messaging, wooing foreign audiences by touting its adherence to objective journalistic standards. RFA, which drew praise recently for its aggressive coverage of Uygur internment camps, has similar goals but a more hard-edged approach.

“The idea was that VOA would be about balanced news, the good cop, and RFA would be the bad cop, hectoring,” said Cull. “VOA wasn’t crazy about the creation of RFA.”

VOA executives shut down a live interview with Chinese fugitive billionaire Guo Wengui in 2017. Photo: AFP

Morale at VOA plummeted in 2017 when executives abruptly shut down a live interview with Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui, a vocal critic of Beijing, a move insiders say undercut its reputation for journalistic integrity.

For more than six decades, the US has tried to reach Chinese audiences and Beijing has tried to prevent it. One Chinese programme, Firedrake, involved broadcasting Chinese flutes, drums, rattles and gongs on the same frequency as VOA, stopping for a few minutes each hour to see if the foreigners were still there. Since then, its tools have become increasingly sophisticated.

A 1953 Central Intelligence Agency-approved memo on ways US government-backed media might reach Mandarin speakers in and outside China suggests how little has changed over the decades. Among America’s challenges, the memo said were: rivalry between US media services, competition between Washington and Beijing for the loyalty of Chinese-language speakers in Southeast Asia, the questionable relevance of US government media as commercial options proliferate and countering China’s censorship.

“The Chinese Communists have thereby been able to minimise the numbers of its population who might have in their possession facilities for listening to Western broadcasts,” the 66-year-old memo said.

“The PRC has been able to make listening to Western broadcasts a very risky business.”

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