Voices heard on Tiananmen Square date
Radio Free Asia reaches users with no other free media accessBEIJING -- As China limits talk about the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre on Thursday by clamping down on television and new media, one old school news outfit remains harder to squelch.
Radio Free Asia's recent series of local-language broadcasts and call-in shows titled "Remembering June 4" offers shortwave radio listeners around China an alternate perspective on the outcome of the student-led democracy movement in Beijing in the spring of 1989.
To prevent cracks in the official line that the events of two decades ago were a "counter-revolutionary" conspiracy, Communist Party censors this week blocked Twitter, Hotmail and Flickr among other Web-based communications services and blacked out foreign TV news about the Tiananmen anniversary.
Meanwhile, over the din of tape-recorded funeral gongs used to jam its signal, RFA's reports could be heard using the inexpensive and common shortwave radio that some Chinese call "xiao tianshi," meaning "little angel."
RFA's China service is sent from a variety of leased facilities and from U.S. government-operated transmitters around Asia, including one in the Mariana Islands in the Central Pacific. It is the work of a team of 112 reporters, announcers, hosts, support staff and stringers in Washington, D.C., Hong Kong and around China.
"We try to be a surrogate broadcaster, offering local news the locals can't get any other way," said Dan Southerland, RFA's executive editor, who was Beijing bureau chief of the Washington Post from 1986-90. Most of his reporters are from China, and some even used to work for official media such as China Central Television.
Established in 1996, it's probably fair to say that RFA's Chinese service is by now severely disliked by the government in Beijing. When asked about the unaccredited broadcaster funded each year by $34 million from U.S. Congress, China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Qin Gang said:
"The radio station you mentioned always engages in activities that interfere with China's internal affairs."
Increasingly, some RFA reports from hard-to-reach places such as Tibet and Xinjiang are cited by independent media such as the New York Times and the Associated Press.
Last March, a few initial reports of clashes between Chinese police and Tibetan Buddhist monks came from RFA, Southerland said.
Southerland, who was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from Beijing in 1989, and covered the Vietnam War before that for the Christian Science Monitor, said that many of his peers were doubtful about RFA. "They told me I'd have to build credibility story by story," he said.
One sign that RFA had begun to fulfill that mission came a few years ago when China's progressive Southern Weekend newspaper published a list of 50 influential Chinese intellectuals. When the list was printed, the Sichuan-based legal scholar and blogger Wang Yi disagreed with it and came up with his own list, putting RFA host William Zhang at No. 11.
"That report was pulled down (from the Web by censors) pretty quickly," Southerland said.
Although he said RFA does not express editorial opinions, its broadcasts and Web sites in nine Asian languages -- Mandarin, Cantonese, Tibetan, Uyghur, Korean, Vietnamese, Laotian, Burmese and Khmer -- are blocked or jammed constantly.
RFA's English-language site -- www.rfa.org/english -- was accessible in Beijing on Wednesday and included a video from 1989 showing a Chinese army troop convoy heading for Tiananmen Square. Links from the Web site to online streams of RFA radio shows were blocked.
Southerland said it's hard to count RFA's listeners, but to gauge the broadcaster's reach, he regularly pores over a hotline log that records each caller's age, location and occupation.
On May 18, for instance, one page of the log showed that RFA hosts took calls from China's Liaoning, Anhui and Hainan provinces, from the cities of Beijing and Chengdu, and from callers who identified themselves as a government employee, a small vendor and a farmer.
Most callers are men and many decline to give their names, Southerland said, "for fear of retaliation against their families." On May 18, the log recorded comments from two young Chinese callers to a show about the Tiananmen anniversary:
"I don't really know about June 4, but I want to know more about it because I am in college now"; and, "Our history teacher mentioned it but it is still very mysterious to me."
An older caller who told RFA he was a supporter of pro-democracy students in Shanghai in 1989 said that the police asked him on April 15 this year to sign a statement agreeing not to talk to his activist friends during "the sensitive June 4 period."
The caller agreed but eventually lost patience and dialed in to an RFA show. "I am calling RFA to speak my mind," he said, according to Southerland's log.
Host William Zhang, a Chinese transplant to Washington who won't use his full Chinese name on the air, averages about 14 calls a day and, Southerland said, has the ability to remain cool in the face of accusations of treason.
Southerland encourages RFA hosts to give all callers fair time, within reason, to uphold a commitment to editorial balance. "I love to see that, because it means that we've got a little bit of a debate there and not just a fan club," Southerland said.
In addition to interference from funeral music, RFA often gets repeated calls from people who simply hang up. This, Southerland believes, is the work of a "50-cent army," a group, perhaps of Chinese nationalists, he said, who are paid by the call to mess with RFA.
On the other end of the spectrum of influence, Southerland said he occasionally gets calls from people pitching stories about a famous author, for instance. Over the years he has been pleasantly surprised that nobody ever has leaned on him to tell him how RFA should report the hard news.
In the name of balance, if China's government makes a move designed to help farmers, for example, RFA will cite the official Xinhua news agency in its initial report, until it can get independent confirmation.
Southerland's hope always is to stick with hard-to-get investigative stories and to compete with many of the bigger news outfits with official accreditation in China.
Southerland said that for years RFA has been out in front on a story about the unwitting transfer of underage ethnic Uyghur girls from Xinjiang to factories on China's east coast. To develop the story reporters from RFA's Mandarin-language service worked with their Uyghur-language producer-counterparts to call local Chinese officials who typically are less responsive to reporters not fluent in Mandarin.
"Mostly we get denials from officials, but occasionally we get a new piece of information this way," Southerland said.
As to official access to the government in Beijing, Southerland said RFA monitors the regular press briefings by Qin and his colleagues but has "no access" otherwise. A recent letter to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs requesting accreditation was not answered, Southerland said.
RFA did enjoy brief accreditation in Beijing during the Olympics last August, when Taiwan-born RFA reporter Jill Ku managed to videotape a petitioner complaining openly about the government before he was carted off by police.
Southerland declined to introduce any of RFA's regular callers, some of whom, he said, call in dozens of times before they get through and often use payphones to avoid being traced.
"A lot of people, we've discovered, don't even want to admit they're listening to us," he said. "Word of mouth is a big deal. One person may go out of town and have a picnic in the trees and listen to us then come back and tell his friends. It may sound low-tech, but it's a reality."