Two American state-run news services, Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Asia (RFA), have been tasked with running a new network to target Chinese speakers as a means of bolstering U.S. soft power and counteracting Beijing’s extensive efforts to shape the media environment. Global Mandarin’s annual budget would be US$5 million to US$10 million, the South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported, citing a source who requested anonymity.
The rollout of Global Mandarin is part of recent efforts by Washington to step up competition with the Chinese Communist Party in the ideological sphere. This September, VOA sent out a memo to its staff saying that it and RFA would cooperate to build up a new “digital brand” as an alternative to Chinese state-run media, which “promotes PRC [People’s Republic of China] narratives, values, and misinformation.”
The move comes two years after the establishment of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, a federal organization intended to “inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.”
“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,’” the Post reported.
RFA, which broadcasts in Cantonese as well as Mandarin Chinese and other Asian languages, targets undemocratic countries in east Asia. It is known for its more intensive coverage of human rights concerns, compared with the more mainstream VOA. U.S. media efforts to promote American political values in China and among Chinese are greatly dwarfed by the investment Beijing has made into doing the reverse.
Since 2009, the Chinese authorities have spent US$6.6 billion on foreign-language media, chiefly English. In 2016, China renamed the English-language arm of its main broadcaster, China Central Television (CCTV), to China Global Television Network. It was later merged with China Radio International and China National Radio to form a broader group called Voice of China. According to SCMP, Chinese state-run 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.”
Since 2018, when the United States began a progressively escalating trade war with the PRC, Washington has paid more attention to highlighting the differences between the U.S. and communist Chinese systems. In August that year, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission released a report recommending that, in order to counter PRC propaganda, America could focus on separating the concepts of the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese people and culture.
Citing analysts, SCMP reported: “Washington is right to focus on reaching younger Mandarin speakers globally … 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.” Nicholas Cull, a professor of public diplomacy at the University of Southern California (USC) Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, told SCMP that “the smart money in Washington is on the long-term problem being China, the short-term being Russia.”
One major challenge facing VOA and RFA, however, is the fact that mainland Chinese both in China and abroad overwhelmingly rely on WeChat, a social media app that has well over 1.1 billion users and is controlled by the Chinese authorities. This means that even if the U.S.-run media outlets encouraged more Chinese to use software designed to circumvent China’s “Great Firewall” and access banned sites like YouTube and Facebook, there might simply not be that many Chinese-speakers using those platforms over WeChat. “You have to go meet them where they are and if you’re not on WeChat, that’s a problem,” Xiao Qiang, director of the Counter-Power Lab at the University of California at Berkeley, told SCMP.