With New Leadership, Voice of America May Shed Beijings Influence
The appointment of a new head to the agency charged with telling Americas story to the world may bring reform to the Voice of Americas troubled Chinese-language service, which has been accused of having been compromised by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
In June 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump nominated documentary film-maker Michael Pack to head the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), which oversees the Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Asia, and other international taxpayer-funded, non-military broadcasting outlets of the United States.
Two years later, Pack was finally confirmed on June 4 by a Senate vote of 53 in favor, 38 opposed. The vote ran along party lines, with only Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, joining the Republican majority to put Pack into the job.
Right up to the end, Packs confirmation was fiercely opposed by Democrats, who fear that under Pack the USAGM could become a propaganda outlet for the Trump administration.
Pack is a noted conservative who has served in a variety of public roles, including on the National Council of the Humanities, and as the top television executive at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting from 2003 to 2006. He is known to be an ally of conservative activist and Trumps former chief strategist, Steve Bannon.
In office, Pack will need to deal with allegations that the CCP has infiltrated and gained influence over VOA.
Hoover Institution Report
In October 2018, the Hoover Institution published a 218-page report entitled “Chinese Interests & American Influence,” detailing how Chinas communist regime has infiltrated and influenced American life, business, education, media, society, and politics.
In its section on media, the report spells out Beijings success at compromising VOAs Mandarin Service branch.
“Starting in the first decade of the 2000s, the Chinese embassy in Washington, DC, and the leadership of VOAs Mandarin service began an annual meeting to allow embassy officials to voice their opinions about VOAs content. PRC embassy officials have also reached out to VOA hosts to convince them to be more supportive of the regime. VOA personalities have hosted events at the embassy. One of VOAs TV editors even publicly pledged his allegiance to China at an embassy event.”
The report states, “in 2012, a Chinese immigrant, who was also a former Chinese dissident and a specialist on the U.S. political system, became the first female Chinese head of the service. She was later fired over a controversial interview that drew the official ire of the PRC, which threatened repercussions.”
The report claims that after her dismissal, “VOAs Mandarin service has resumed a pattern of avoiding stories that could be perceived to be too tough on China, according to several staffers. For example, blogs written by dissidents such as Cao Yaxue, who runs the human rights related http://chinachange.org site, have been removed from the VOA website.”
The report says, “several prominent Chinese commentators are no longer on VOAs lineup of analysts.” In addition, VOA staffers say that the emphasis is now on “travel, culture, and language,” which viewers can find on homegrown media, as well.
Sounding the Alarm
The academic criticism in the Hoover report has found a champion in the White House.
In recent months, Trump and his administration have expressed their dissatisfaction with Voice of Americas programing, charging that the broadcaster has increasingly become a voice for the very regimes to which its mission requires it to broadcast American values of freedom, democracy, and human rights.
On April 10, the White House put out a statement declaring that, “Today…VOA too often speaks for Americas adversaries—not its citizens.”
“Voice of America…spends about $200 million each year on its mission to tell Americas story and present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively to people around the globe,” the statement says.
The administration cites VOAs reporting on the coronavirus pandemic as an example of the broadcasters bias, saying that VOA has “amplified Beijings propaganda.”
Calling the lockdown in Wuhan, epicenter of the outbreak, a successful “model” for the world, VOA also tweeted video of the light show put on by the regime to mark the “quarantines alleged end.”
VOA also used notoriously unreliable Chinese statistics to create graphics comparing deaths from the virus in China and in the United States. The administrations statement points out that “intelligence experts [say] there is simply no way to verify the accuracy of Chinas numbers.”
Former Employees Call for Reform
The Trump administration and the Hoover Institution are not alone in their concerns over VOAs editorial integrity. Former Chinese employees of the Chinese-language service that broadcasts into Communist mainland China, as well as to the Chinese diaspora around the world, agree that VOA has strayed from its mission.
Sasha Gong, the “first female Chinese head of the service” mentioned in the Hoover Institution report, was ultimately fired, along with several members of her team, over circumstances related to an interview with a wealthy Chinese exile who has been scathingly critical of the Chinese Communist leadership. Gong told The Epoch Times that Michael Pack is in the right position to change things at VOA, “but he just needs the right lieutenant.” There are systemic issues facing the Chinese-language branch, however.
“If not the majority, at least half of the Chinese staff when they go back to China to see their family, they are harassed by the Chinese secret police.” Gong cited the experience of one young woman who in 2016 returned to her home only to find that two police officers were downstairs waiting for her.
Gong also corroborates the general findings of the Hoover Institution report.
“International broadcasting is a different type of business,” Gong said. “It speaks for whoever paid, like the taxpayers. There is no need to give 50 percent to the balance of whatever dictatorship that you happen to broadcast to,” she continued.
Now, however, VOA calls that “balance,” Gong continued. In those countries, Gong said, “the news is never balanced to begin with…, and we, in order to balance a little bit, we have to be 100 percent pro-democracy, thats the key.”
Li Su, who worked for 27 years in the Chinese-language service of VOA told The Epoch Times that “since 2000 the direction of VOA changed from an entity to promote freedom, democracy, and human rights, to be a normal media, the so-called balanced reporting.”