Radio Free Asia: Background, Funding, and Policy Issues

CRS Report for Congress
Radio Free Asia: Background, Funding, and
Policy Issues
Susan B. Epstein
Specialist on Foreign Policy and Trade
Foreign Affairs, Defense and Trade Division
updated with the assistance of Joyce Tsai, intern
In response to some Asian countries' human rights violations and to promote
democracy in countries such as China and North Korea, the Administration and the 103rd
Congress agreed that the United States should increase broadcasting to this part of the
world. The International Broadcasting Act of 1994, title III of the Foreign Relations
Authorizations Act of 1994/95 (P.L. 103-236), created the Broadcasting Board of
Governors (BBG) under the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) and authorized the Board
to make grants available to conduct surrogate broadcasting services (referred to as1
Radio Free Asia or RFA) to the People's Republic of China, Burma, Cambodia, Laos,
North Korea, Tibet, and Vietnam.
In 1997, lawmakers who opposed Beijing sought ways of promoting democracy and
human rights in China other than through denying normal trade relation (NTR) trade
benefits. One suggestion was to dramatically increase funds to expand Radio Free Asia
and Voice of America (VOA) broadcasting into China. The Radio Free Asia Act of 1998
(title XXXIX, P.L. 105-261) authorized $22 million for broadcasting in FY1999, plus
$8 million for one-time capital costs. Congress appropriated $22 million in FY1999 for
RFA to expand its broadcasting to 24 hours a day into China and continue broadcasting
into five other Asian target countries. For FY2000, the President’s budget request for
RFA and the Senate appropriation (S. 1217) are $23 million. On October 1, 1999, as a
result of the Foreign Affairs Reform and Restructuring Act of 1998, the BBG will
become an independent agency in order to maintain its journalistic integrity while the rest
of USIA will merge into the Department of State.

U.S. surrogate broadcasting provides independent, uncensored, and accurate news and1
information of events in the targeted country (often a closed society), as well as cultural programs
of that country. Surrogate broadcasting includes Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Inc. In
contrast, general broadcasting, carried out by Voice of America, presents a reliable source of
international news, American policies and culture to listeners overseas.
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress

The idea of U.S. surrogate broadcasting in Asia dates back to the Korean War and
was again raised during the Vietnam War. Interest in creating a broadcast service to Asia
re-emerged after the Chinese government's 1989 crackdown on the pro-democracy
movement in Tiananmen Square. In December 1991, The President's Task Force on
International Broadcasting recommended increasing U.S. surrogate broadcasting
activities into the People's Republic of China, as did The Commission on Broadcasting to
the People's Republic of China in September 1992. A third U.S. government committee,
The U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, recommended in August 1992
enhancing VOA broadcasting to China.
In early 1993, the Administration sought in its FY1994 budget request $30 million
for the creation of a surrogate service which was referred to as Radio Free Asia. On June

15, 1993, the President announced his proposal for a major consolidation of U.S.

nonmilitary, international broadcasting, including the creation of a new "Asian Democracy
Throughout that year the 103 Congress debated whether, and how, to broadcastrd
into Asia. Proponents of surrogate broadcasting into Asia argued that: 1) it would
promote democracy, especially in China where political repression and government control
of news is strong, 2) freer and more open countries would enhance U.S. bilateral relations
in Asia, and 3) the United States has an obligation to promote freedom around the world,
not just in Europe. Opponents claimed that China is a much more open society with many
sources of information, unlike Europe and the Soviet Union in the 1950s when Radio Free
Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) was established. Expanding Voice of America (VOA)
broadcasts rather than creating a surrogate service would be less expensive and less
confrontational, they contended, reducing the possible reaction by Asian governments of
digging in their heels and moving even further away from democratic principles.
After numerous hearings and debates, Congress authorized the idea of a Radio Free
Asia surrogate broadcasting entity in the United States International Broadcasting Act of
1994 -- title III of the Foreign Relations Authorization Act, Fiscal Years 1994 and 1995
(H.R. 2333, signed into law on April 30, 1994, as P.L. 103-236). The law stipulated that
no grant could be made to RFA unless, 1) a detailed plan on the formation of RFA is sent
to Congress within ninety days after the confirmation of the Broadcasting Board of
Governors; and 2) the plan certifies that RFA can be established and operate with grants
of no more than $22 million in any fiscal year, with one-time capital costs of no more than
$8 million. Radio Free Asia would assume all obligations, not the U.S. government, and
grants would end after September 30, 1999, unless the President’s budget submission to
Congress recommends a one year extension as authorized in sec. 309(g) of P.L. 103-236.
Eighteen months later, the BBG sent the required RFA plan to Congress (November
15, 1995) after some in Congress expressed concern that the Administration was
stonewalling on the issue. RFA's plan asserted that it would be possible to establish a
surrogate broadcasting service into Asian countries within the budget set forth by
Congress and that it would be broadcasting "as soon as possible". The plan stated that full
time staff for FY1995 and FY1996 would not exceed 45 in Washington, D.C. and 110

independent contractors. The BBG also set out several recommendations: that funding
for an Asia surrogate service continue under the BBG; that the new entity be created as
a private U.S. corporation using existing transmitters, where possible; that the new service
be named the Asia Pacific Network (APN); that the entity establish its headquarters in
Washington, D.C. with an office in Asia; and that it begin operation as soon as
transmission site issues are resolved and staff hired.
Despite congressional objections to altering the Radio Free Asia name, as cited by
law, the broadcasting service was incorporated on March 11, 1996, as the Asia Pacific
Network (Radio Free Asia), Inc. In the following months, Congress reasserted that Radio
Free Asia is the authorized name.
The first RFA broadcast took place on September 29, 1996, broadcasting into China
in Mandarin. The initial broadcasts of one hour at 7:00 a.m. and one hour at 11:00 p.m.
included regional news and feature stories. The Chinese government reacted to the initial
broadcasts with strongly worded letters of opposition to top level U.S. government
officials, as well as editorials in major Chinese newspapers claiming that the CIA is behind
the broadcast operation.
Current Status
RFA’s Uyghur, Wu, and Cantonese programs were added most recently, in 1998, in
response to the desire of Congress, under the Radio Free Asia Act of 1998, to increase
broadcasting in other languages to China in addition to Mandarin and Tibetan. By the end
of FY1999, RFA will be broadcasting 24 hours a day into China: 12 hours/day of
Mandarin, 3 hours/day of Cantonese, 8 hours/day of Tibetan and 1 hour/day of Uyghur.
From the beginning of RFA, the Chinese government vigorously opposed this
surrogate broadcasting, asserting that the U.S. is using broadcasting to impose its values
on Asian citizens and interfere in Asian countries’ internal affairs. China began jamming
RFA Mandarin broadcasts in most frequencies on August 18, 1997. The government also
began jamming Tibetan broadcasts in early October, 1997. Earlier, Vietnam had begun
jamming the Vietnamese broadcasts in February, 1997; and North Korea also had begun
jamming the Korean broadcasts in June, 1997. The Chinese government is also jamming
RFA’s Uyghur and Cantonese broadcasts. In all of these cases, jamming has been
continual, but with varying degrees of effectiveness. RFA currently is broadcasting into
China via multiple transmission sites and on varying frequencies, keeping the probability
of China government jamming at a minimum. The broadcast entity has been successful in
averting some, but not all, of the jamming.
In October 1998 RFA launched its website, which provides the audio broadcasts as
well as additional written material. There is evidence that the Vietnamese and Chinese
governments have since tried to block internet access and have been successful at blocking
it in many places. The BBG’s January 15, 1999 report to Congress focused on the
continuing efforts of RFA to counter the suppression of its programming. 2

Radio Free Asia Broadcasting to China, report to Congress pursuant to Section 3903, P.L.2

In another report to Congress dated April 16, 1999, the BBG said the RFA was cost
effective and successful in reaching its listeners. Despite logistical and security difficulties,
in 1998 a private research organization was able to conduct audience surveys on Chinese
listenership of RFA’s Mandarin broadcasts. According to the three-site survey, among all
international broadcasters, only VOA and the BBC (both of which have been on the air
since the 1940s), as well as the Taiwan government radio station, had a higher listenership
than RFA. 3
Until 1998, all RFA transmitter sites had been leased. In 1998 and early 1999, RFA
obtained permanent sites on the islands of Saipan and Tinian, respectively, in the Northern
Marianas. Although U.S. broadcast sites in Thailand and the Philippines would be
excellent transmission points for RFA, both countries have blocked usage, a right given
them in bilateral accords. Their reasons have to do with an unwillingness to anger China
and some ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nation) governments.
An underlying principle for Radio Free Asia hiring is that it is to be a lean
organization. Full time employees initially were to number 109, but the staff totals, in both
the field and in Washington, have grown to 230 as a result of increased broadcasts to
China and the realization that the original staffing goals would not sustain more than token
programming. The President of RFA is Richard Richter, formerly a producer and
executive producer of news programs at ABC, CBS, and WETA. Dan Southerland,
previously a Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post, and a Hong Kong bureau chief
for the Christian Science Monitor and Vietnam correspondent for United Press
International, is Vice President of Programming and Executive Editor. Because USIA
will be dissolved on October 1, 1999, 66 full-time permanent positions will be transferred
from USIA to the BBG.
Each language service has a chief; the Mandarin service, because of its size, also has
a deputy. Total personnel for each service includes: Mandarin, 33; Tibetan, 23; Burmese,
16; Vietnamese, 15; Korean, 14; Khmer, 11; Uyghur, 4; Cantonese, 9; and the Laotian
service, 11. The Wu broadcast takes place as part of the Mandarin service. RFA’s
headquarters are located in Washington, D.C. It has expanded it bureau in Hong Kong
and has additional smaller offices in Tokyo, Phnom Penh, Dharamsala (India), Bangkok,
and Seoul. RFA reporters, or stringers, are also located throughout Asia, the United
States, and Europe. All are native speakers of one of RFA’s broadcast languages, as are
a number of editorial consultants who are experts or commentators in specialized fields.
Funding History
The FY1995 Commerce, Justice, State Appropriations (P.L. 103-317) provided $10
million in multi-year funds for startup of RFA ($5 million of which was rescinded in
FY1996). The FY1996 appropriations provided a $5 million earmark from the
international broadcasting account. For FY1997, Congress earmarked $9.3 million for
RFA within the Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Act of 1997. Earlier in the FY1997

105-261, January 15, 1999
Other opinions were expressed from Chinese listeners via four call-in programs. Report to3
Congress, pursuant to Section 309(f) , P.L. 103-236), p. 8.

appropriations debate, Members of the House Appropriations Committee had expressed
concern that RFA had not been operating within a clear plan. The Committee requested
RFA to submit a plan prior to receiving grants under the FY1997 appropriations. Officials
of the broadcast entity sent a plan to Congress in mid-September 1996 which the
committee approved.
For FY2000, the Administration has requested a total international broadcasting
budget of $452.6 million which includes $23.1 million for Radio Free Asia. The Senate
has agreed to $23.1 million in its appropriation bill (S. 1217). Following is the radio’s
funding history:
FY1995 -- $5.0 million
FY1996 -- $5.0 million
FY1997 -- $9.3 million
FY1998 -- $24.1 million
FY1999 -- $22.0 million (estimate)
FY2000 -- $23.1 million (request)
Issues for Congress
RFA proved to be an important source of objective information to the Chinese after
the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and the subsequent Chinese
demonstrations at the U.S. embassy in Beijing in May, 1999. Radio Free Asia currently
broadcasts for a total of 28 hours a day; the BBG plans to increase that figure to 34 hours
by the end of FY1999. The issues facing the 106 Congress are: 1) authorization andth
appropriation of increased funding to support RFA’s Chinese language expansion; 2)
continual finetuning of programming and technical (transmission) support; and 3)
development of reliable audience surveys.
The Clinton Administration endorses the idea of expanding RFA’s budget and
capabilities. Both the Administration and many in Congress believe that expanding
broadcasting into China is a better way to promote democracy and human rights than
denying China normal trade relation (NTR) trade benefits.
H.R. 2415, the American Embassy Security Act of 1999, would provide permanent
authorization for RFA. It would also repeal funding limitations for the broadcast entity
for FY2000. The Senate Foreign Relations Authorization legislation (S. 886) would
reauthorize RFA through FY2005 and would raise the limit on annual expenditures to $28
million in each of FY2000 and FY2001.
The increase in funding in FY1998 allowed RFA to expand its transmission from
Saipan; also, increases in FY1998 and FY1999 allowed RFA to expand its broadcast hours
and add new languages. The FY2000 budget request of just over $23 million may allow
RFA to expand its transmission sites. RFA officials believe that a slight increase in funds
in FY2000 would allow them to fully function as Congress had intended in the
International Broadcasting Act of 1994. Increased radio construction funds amounting to
$20.9 million requested for FY2000 (compared to $13.2 million appropriated for FY1999)
would benefit both RFA and VOA activities.

Some concerns regarding expanding the RFA budget exist. Lawmakers concerned
with maintaining a balanced budget view these increases as unnecessary expenditures that
would tap into the surplus which is being eyed for social security or tax cuts.
Furthermore, because the proposed funding levels being debated in Congress is three times
the FY1997 funding level, some fear that such a dramatic increase in a short time span to
an organization that is so young could lead to an inefficient use of taxpayer dollars by
RFA. Others have cited the fact that numerous similar information sources already are
reaching China, including CNN; they say that increasing RFA three-fold likely would not
result in a proportionate increase in democracy promotion in China. Moreover,
organizations that promote U.S.-China trade assert that this action will cause further
deterioration of U.S.-China relations that could dampen the future growth of U.S. exports.
In the aftermath of the May 7, 1999, NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in
Belgrade, RFA’s coverage of the bombing and demonstrations was extensive in its
Mandarin, Cantonese, Tibetan, and Uyghur programs. RFA reported apologies by the
U.S. and NATO, which the Chinese media had failed to mention. Listeners who
responded to the call-in programs were critical of both the U.S. and the Chinese
government’s handling of the demonstrations. Throughout the Kosovo crisis, RFA
reported on the suffering due to ethnic cleansing, which the Chinese media portrayed as
a product of NATO bombing.
A matter of ongoing interest in Congress is overlap, duplication and coordination of
VOA and RFA. According to Allen Heil, Deputy Director of Voice of America, RFA and
VOA are closely coordinating and monitoring their activities in Asia. On September 12,
1998, VOA dropped its Mandarin broadcast during 0400-0500 gmt, the only hour of the
day that it had been overlapping with the RFA broadcast. RFA agreed to broadcast during
a number of non-prime hours to avoid overlapping with VOA. VOA and RFA now
broadcast 12 hours each in Mandarin for a total of 24 hours per day.
Jamming of U.S. broadcasts into Asia is a concern of both administrators and
Members of Congress. China government jamming of U.S. international broadcasting--
both VOA and RFA--reportedly has been very effective, especially in the cities, according
to Voice of America and Radio Free Asia officials. They believe that increased funding
will assist U.S. broadcasters in circumventing the jamming problem. Broadcast officials
admit, however, that China’s jamming activity may increase proportionately to the increase
in U.S. broadcasting activity there. Nevertheless, listeners who have called in to the radio
programs from every Chinese province are evidence that RFA is reaching its audience.