Starting at that time, at home in secret, I would turn on the radio and slowly turn the dial, slowly, slowly, -- found it!
When the Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army took Shanghai, my father listened to that station every day, with the volume down very low.
My mother quickly found out. “Don’t listen to this. Absolutely no listening!”
“Don’t talk about it. Don’t tell anybody! Or you’ll get your head cut off.”
It meant prison. Prison for certain.
Later I found out: he was listening to the Voice of America.
There was always, “Welcome to the Voice of America in Mandarin. (singing Yankee Doodle)”
Those Who Listen in the Dark
Dedicated to the Voice of America’s listeners and viewers, since 1942
A different version of reality
One day in September of 1971, while serving in the People’s Liberation Army, Wei Jingsheng was alarmed by a Voice of America broadcast.
First they said a Chinese chartered jet had crashed in Mongolia.
This had to be a plane for a top leader – who else could charter a plane?
So it could only be Chairman Mao, Lin Biao, or Premier Zhou Enlai.
1978: WEI JINGSHENG:
Posted Democracy Wall manifesto in central Beijing.
1979, 1993: Twice convicted of “counterrevolutionary crimes.” 18 years in prison.
1997: Exiled to the United States. 】
As for Premier Zhou, obviously he was still in the papers every day.
One thing about the Chinese – everybody always looks at the newspapers to see who is mentioned and who is not.
Zhou Enlai still appeared, but not Lin Biao. We guessed it: Lin Biao.
当时在江西的邓朴方也从“敌台”中听到了林彪坠机的消息。他立刻把这件事告诉了他的父亲 - 当时因为政治上落难，正在江西新建县拖拉机配件厂“劳动”的邓小平。邓小平的女儿邓榕后来在回忆父亲的书中写道：父亲还是和往常一样沉默不语。
Deng Pufang, then in Jiangxi Province, heard from the “enemy radio” that Lin Biao’s plane had crashed. He immediately told his father Deng Xiaoping, who because of political difficulties was at that time “working” in a tractor component factory in Xinjian County. As Deng Xiaoping’s daughter Deng Rong later wrote in a memoir of her father, Deng Xiaoping followed his longstanding practice and said not a word.
What impressed me most deeply was that at the time of the Lin Biao incident, VOA reported that an extraordinary event must have occurred in China. During the power struggle at Lushan, they said, all the planes in China had been grounded for nearly a week. But now no plane had flown for half a month. Something very big must have happened. The day after we heard this, we sent a friend to find out, and when he got back in two days he told us: Lin Biao died in the crash.
The author Zhong Acheng was at this time a “sent-down youth” working for the Yunnan Production and Construction Corps. In the essay “Listening to Enemy Radio,” he wrote:
“The Lin Biao incident of 1971 was reported almost the same day by foreign broadcasters. It was a key event of the decade. The myth of Mao Zedong instantly collapsed. What had begun with a wave of Mao’s hand at the rally of August 18, 1966 at Tiananmen Square—no, earlier, when Liu Shaoqi first proclaimed ‘Mao Zedong Thought’—that long hypnosis had now at this moment, come to an end.”
The late Chen Ziming, a scholar of politics officially named a “black hand” of the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement, wrote:
“In the 70s, Voice of America became a main source of information for young people in China. After the Lin Biao incident, listening to ‘enemy radio’ became very widespread, because people felt official channels were not providing genuine information.”
When I was in the army we had a small counterrevolutionary organization. When we heard about Lin Biao, we all thought that was very strange; many people felt there was something wrong with the Communist Party. For how could Mao’s close friend and comrade-in-arms, his designated successor, be done down like that? At this, those of us who were originally against the revolution began to contact each other inside the military, and quickly formed a few small groups, based on our hometowns. People would get together and say “Voice of America said” this or that—and if you didn’t know about it, you’d be embarrassed. Once people were in the loop, they felt that VOA was a crucial source of information. It helped to make up for the limits on free expression. Everybody wanted a variety of sources, a variety of voices.
In 1966, Mao Zedong initiated the “Great Cultural Revolution.” Controls over Chinese political institutions, society and information became even more extreme. But extremes can provoke reactions, and the stifling political atmosphere led many young people to seek other voices, for balance.
I think it was the end of 1966, November. From that time on people were saying: there is a radio station, Voice of America, and what they say is very different from what the newspapers say.
For example, after Mao arranged the downfall of Liu Shaoqi, Voice of America was saying something very different from the newspapers. They said Mao’s goal for the Cultural Revolution wasn’t any revolution in culture. It was for the power struggle, to do away with his political opponents. Well! When we heard this new idea, it seemed to fit, since so many people’s fathers had started losing their positions, one after another. And after all, what was the problem with Liu Shaoqi anyway? Was it real, was it fake? After we started hearing different voices, people started having different views.
Listening very quietly late at night
In December 1968, Mao Zedong started sending teen-aged students from cities to the countryside. One of these “sent-down youth” was Ren Yi, a senior in a Nanjing model high school.
REN YI (Nanjing sent-down youth):
Before I was sent down to the countryside, there was a very good student in my class. Of the 48 students in the class, he was one of the only two not sent down. That’s because he had a disability– he had a hunchback; that’s why he wasn’t sent down. But this classmate of ours had a special skill: he made transistor radios. He made radios for several of us who were closest to him. In those days, buying a transistor radio cost over 10 yuan. 10 yuan was an astronomical sum. But he made one transistor radio for each of us. There was a special purpose: it was just for listening to VOA!
Chen Yizi was an undergraduate at Peking University in 1965, when he wrote a 30,000 character letter to Mao Zedong, charging the Party and the nation with being undemocratic. He was labeled a counterrevolutionary.
CHEN YIZI (former Director of the Chinese Institute for Reform of the Economic Structure):
In 1969 I arrived in the countryside. Because I was originally a physics student, I made an eight-tube transistor radio, and the result was that we could listen to the Voice of America. So we were thrilled. Starting in early 1970, we listened to Voice of America every evening.
GAO HONGMING (a youth “sent down” to work on a farm run by the Heilongjiang Production and Construction Corps):
That evening, you see, I took that radio and huddled under my quilt. I wanted to listen. But the others weren’t asleep so I was afraid to listen. I hardly dared breathe, and my forehead was covered with sweat, as I slowly, slowly turned the dial.
The first time I really listened to the Voice of America was in 1971; it was before the Lin Biao incident.
1977: Implicated in the “Li Yizhe” counterrevolutionary clique; one year in prison.
1995: Received a Doctorate in Sociology from Harvard University】
My brother was one year younger than I, and he loved radios. From the age of 12 or 13 he was building radios. At that time I had just a single earphone, to go inside the ear. I remember so clearly: in the evening I would push it in with my finger – I could hear the broadcast only very late at night. That time, the first time I heard the Voice of America, the interference was pretty bad. Still – every time I listened, I could pick up some really new and interesting things.
A Voice of America listener wrote in to say: “In those black years, I kept my shortwave radio wrapped in a dark cloth under my bed. Only very late at night when everyone was asleep did I dare to take it out, put in my earphone and quietly listen.”
For the people who lived through those times, this is a collective memory.
“I’d rather listen to this than eat.”
So after we got to the countryside, to speak frankly, among the “sent-down youth,” listening to the Voice of America was very widespread, very widespread. Everybody listened. Because no other news was coming over. You could only get news from the Voice of America. For example, when the Apollo mission went up, we heard about it from Voice of America. Hearing that Apollo went up, that was really stunning. They visited the moon! And here we were, faces to the ground, backs to the sky, pushing the dirt stroke by stroke.
In those locked-down years, the sound of the “enemy radio” pushing through the static was a real mind-opener.
Oh, I felt that listening was very exciting. Goodness! Everything it said was new and different. Is there a different viewpoint on this story? For us young people that was very important. Listen just once and you became an addict, you just had to hear more. And in that environment, that tightly sealed environment, people all felt that way. Even if it meant missing a meal, they wanted to listen.
Back when I was working in a factory, in the city of Guangzhou, we could hear it very well down by the river. The city itself was chaotic and noisy, but the riverside was open land. A bunch of us would get together to listen. We had a wireless radio this big. Several of us, very good friends, were later labeled together as counterrevolutionaries.”
Lu Wen, a “sent-down youth” in Jiangsu Province in those years, recalled his secret listening:
“This kind of empty consolation coming over the airwaves was like an anaesthetic, helping us get through these most difficult times in our lives. It also made me understand that two thirds of the people in the world did not want us to liberate them, and the idea of planting the red flag everywhere in the world was just wishful thinking by the Great Leader. And it made me understand that the people in Taiwan were not living in miserable circumstances at all; that the illness people had in 1960 was an effect of the famine; and that being “sent down” was just another kind of forced labor …”
Ruan Ming, former Vice Chair of the Central Party School’s Office of Theory Study, was also a VOA listener in those years.
I started listening to the Voice of America very early on. But I didn’t listen very regularly. I listened once in a while. I started listening regularly after I got to the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. I went there from Beijing in 1969, when the Central Propaganda Department was disbanded during the Cultural Revolution. In Ningxia one could hear the VOA broadcast very clearly.
In all walks of life, many people secretly listened to enemy radio. I found that people who knew something and had doubts about what was happening—many people—they wanted to hear more news. They needed something more than the People’s Daily and that sort of thing. At this time, secretly listening to the enemy radio became an extremely important source of news.
“Felt like an old friend.”
On July 12, 1976, President Gerald Ford signed the VOA Charter. The Charter’s first article explicitly required:
“The Voice of America will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. Voice of America news will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive.”
“The news may be good or bad. We shall tell you the truth.”
Many very important events, and ideas about some very important things, were illuminated for us by the Voice of America.
In the 1980s, Chen Yizi was Director of the Chinese Institute for Reform of the Economic Structure. He was an adviser to two Communist Party chiefs: Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang. After the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, he was forced into exile, and died abroad. But during his lifetime he never forgot that the starting point of the reforms was the days of secret listening to the Voice of America.
So the last time I saw retired VOA reporter Zhou Youkang at Princeton I smiled and said to him, “You were my first real teacher.”
The kind of political power in China, this kind of autocratic power, in the time of Mao Zedong—and this is very important—one thing they accomplished extremely well is that they were able to divorce the value system completely from basic human common sense. That is to say, even what you understand quite well, they could tell you it’s not true.
I saw my father and mother denounced, humiliated, and beaten in the “Cultural Revolution.” My grandfather spent four years in prison. I knew who they were, I knew in my heart what kind of people they were. But society tells you that you cannot trust that sort of thing; you must trust the Party.
So people like me were always in turmoil inside. And then news came from outside that made us feel we could once again trust our own personal experiences. What we experienced was pain. When the outside says that being beaten is painful, and you say it is indeed painful, but the Communist Party says the beating is not painful, it is only parental love – then you know that what the Party says is wrong.
Listening to Voice of America at a time like this, you discover that outside there is a whole world, a very big world, and what the world says agrees with your own feelings. That is extremely important.
Voice of America feels like a friend who understands you.
Secretly Listening to Voice of America is Counterrevolutionary
However, since 1949, when the Communist Party took power, listening to the Voice of America could have grave consequences.
Harry Wu lived in Shanghai at that time. His father was a banker.
Starting in 1949, when I was 12 years old, the Communist Party and its army occupied Shanghai. Now that we were in the New China, my father would listen to that station every day with the volume down low. I was too little to understand, but now I know that he was listening to the Voice of America.
1957: Labeled a “Rightist.”
1960: Sentenced to life in prison. Served 19 years in labor camp.
1979: Emigrated to the United States. 】
At that time there were two radio stations—the Taiwan station Voice of Free China, and the Voice of America. If you listened to one of these stations, that was “listening to enemy radio” – a serious crime.
On October 10, 1950, two days after China decided to send troops into Korea, the Central Committee issued its Directive on Suppressing the Activities of Counterrevolutionaries.
As we now know, this Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries probably killed about a million people. Mao Zedong himself said he had seven hundred thousand people killed, so-called counterrevolutionaries. At that time people were shot to death in public. People were tried publicly in stadiums or in theaters, and then taken out and shot right away. Posters and loudspeakers announced it. Usually it was a few days before a major holiday such as the Chinese New Year, the National Day, or International Labor Day.
In the tense political atmosphere of 1952, 15-year-old Harry Wu felt uneasy.
When 1952 arrived, and I thought how many people had been shot to death in 1951, at that time there was a crime called “secretly listening to enemy radio.” So I said to my father that he should not listen any more. He said, “Child, don’t concern yourself about this.” But sometimes when I went to my parents’ room I saw that he was cautiously, quietly listening to this station.
Sometimes when my father was listening, I would join him. He saw me as a high school student, already grown, so he listened with me; but again and again, every time, he said to me, “Don’t talk about it! Don’t tell anybody! Or you’ll get your head cut off.”
At that time many people were sentenced for listening to reactionary broadcasts. As we grew up during the Cultural Revolution and saw the struggle meetings against people around us, there was commonly a charge that said, “secretly listening to the reactionary enemy radio,” or “secretly listening to VOA,” and so on and so on. So people were very much afraid of listening themselves, but also very curious.
My mother quickly found out. On the spot she gave me a stern warning: “Beware of this! Don’t listen to this. Absolutely no listening!”
Such a stern warning was not without reason. In those years many Chinese people paid a heavy price for listening to VOA.
This is a counterrevolutionary activity. You could be imprisoned or shot.
I had a co-worker in 1974, I remember very clearly. His name was Mei Yushen. He was one year older than me, born in 1955, so in ’74 he was 19. He really liked listening to the reactionary broadcasts, but we never listened together. He was a very quiet person. He listened in the factory. The upshot was that one time after listening to the Voice of America he wrote them a letter; and the same for the Taiwan broadcast. The letters were intercepted. He was sentenced to eight years in prison. This is something we remember very clearly. There was no other charge. The charge was secretly listening to reactionary radio, and then writing letters to the enemy radio stations.
In the Communist Party’s many political campaigns over the years, “secret listening to enemy radio” was always a major offense. If you were caught, at the least you would lose your radio and your job. You could be interrogated in isolation, you could be forced to denounce yourself and be denounced by your neighbors, and be labeled a “bad element.” Worse, you could be sent to prison.
If they caught you listening to the enemy radio, first they might ask you, how many times have you listened? Which station? Taiwan or Voice of America? Which VOA frequency? On what dates exactly? Then they would ask, who did you discuss it with? Your wife? Your son? Your neighbor? What is your neighbor’s name? Then they would bring your neighbor as a witness. About whether you engaged in any activities, whether you organized a small group, a small faction, something counterrevolutionary. If you listened to the enemy radio and then organized any kind of counterrevolutionary activity, the Communist Party would certainly add that to your charges.
The grave consequences of secret listening
Secret listening to “enemy radio” could cost you your freedom. It could even cost your life.
The most serious of the charges brought against me was called “long-term listening to enemy radio.”
In May 1969, the sent-down-youth Ren Yi wrote a song called “My Home Town.”
This song expressed the feelings of all the sent-down youth: longing for home, and deep bewilderment about the present and the future. Within a month the song was being sung by sent-down youth all over China, and it gained the popular title, “The Song of Youth.”
This “Song of Youth” kept getting more and more popular. Even before then, ignorant as I was, I knew this was going to be trouble.
One day, the classmate who had made a transistor radio for Ren Yi ran up and said to him, “The enemy radio is playing the ‘Song of Youth’!” Ren Yi knew disaster was coming.
Radio Moscow played the song in August. Voice of America played it in October. I was sweating all over my whole body. I knew I was in for it. So I did something: I surrendered myself. After the Voice of America and Radio Moscow had both broadcast my song, I turned myself over to the authorities.
On May 24 (1970), just one year after writing the song, I saw the document sentencing me to death, May 24, by the Nanjing Municipal Military Control Committee, whose full title was the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Nanjing Military Control Committee, sentencing Ren Yi to death and to be carried out immediately.”
In the end the District Commander, General Xu Shiyou, decided not to carry out the sentence, and Ren Yi kept his life.
Ren Yi was lucky. University of Chicago scholar Wang Youqin, in her book Victims of the Cultural Revolution, wrote of Zuo Shutang, from Shanghai. Because Zuo Shutang “listened to enemy radio,” he had his house ransacked and his things taken, was interrogated in isolation, and beaten to death. The person who exposed him was also interrogated in isolation, and after his release wandered homeless and eventually killed himself.
It reflects society’s culture, its morality, its politics. This is not something you can get rid of by killing a few people. Say someone secretly listens to the enemy radio and I shoot him to death, will there be nobody listening next time? There will still be people listening.
How did VOA come to be labeled a reactionary organization?
Zhang Yicai, now retired, worked in an appliance factory in Hangzhou. In 2001, Hangzhou police searched his home and found a program schedule sent by the Voice of America.
ZHANG YICAI (retired worker):
Then they asked me, “Do you listen to Voice of America?” I told them, “I often listen to that station. I listened to it before, and I still listen to it today. I have two radios, and listen all the time. The state allows it. And it’s not a reactionary organization!”
The Hangzhou Municipal Public Security Bureau’s Labor Education Supervisory Committee sentenced Zhang Yicai to two years’ forced labor. One charge was listening to Voice of America, and contacting its Beijing office by letter and telephone.
How could the Voice of America turn into a reactionary organization inside China? Could a reactionary organization set up an office in Beijing?!
Zhang Yicai did not accept his sentence. While in the labor camp, he petitioned the judicial authorities to review his case, but each application he sent disappeared without a trace.
I petitioned for an appeal to the provincial level and the city level. They locked away my peititions and they locked away my letters.
After serving his sentence, Zhang Yicai continued to try to have his case reheard. He wrote application after application accusing the Hangzhou Police Department of improper enforcement.
I met with every leader in the Public Security Bureau. I was reporting a crime by the police, especially this “reactionary organization” label forced on me. I am an old man—how can I leave this world as a “reactionary”?
Currently, Zhang Yicai continues every day to work on his petitions for appeal.
I am absolutely determined to clear this up. Clear my name! As long as I have one breath left in my body I will keep pursuing this.
Origin of the “Enemy Radio”
From Voice of America’s first day of operation, several countries saw it as “enemy radio.” The first of these were fascist Germany and Japan.
December 7, 1941, Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The U.S. soon declares war on Japan, Germany, and Italy.
Voice of America was founded in 1942. It began with broadcasts to Germany and Japan, in German and Japanese. Japan had forbidden listening to enemy radio broadcasts, and violators could be sentenced by the court to death.
While China fought to resist Japan, VOA’s Chinese broadcast supplied valuable news of the outside world.
At that time, America and China were allies against the fascists, and the Communist leader Mao Zedong even said, “The American people are the Chinese people’s good friend. The goal our Party is struggling for is to overturn the reactionary Nationalist dictatorship and set up an American-style democratic system.”
But before the Communists took full power in 1949, the Party leader Mao Zedong had already decided to join the socialist camp led by the Soviet Union, and to throw in completely with the Soviets. On March 13, 1949, in his summary report to the Seventh Session of the Second Plenum of the Central Committee, he said: “China and the Soviet Union are like brothers. We must stand together in a united front. We are allies.”
On August 18, 1949, Mao Zedong wrote a blistering essay for the Xinhua News Agency, titled “Farewell, Leighton Stuart!”, attacking America’s China policy and the American ambassador, stating, “American imperialism has lost all the credit it once had with the Chinese people.”
June 1950，the People’s Army of North Korea crossed the 38th parallel and attacked South Korea.The armies of America and China on the Korean Peninsula soon began a bloody combat vast in scope.The blood of hundreds of thousands of American and Chinese soldiers was spilled on the soil of a foreign land.
The United States had become what Chinese officialdom called “the world’s most reactionary, most barbarian, most aggressively imperialist nation,” and “the greatest enemy of the people of China and the people of the world.”
It was now that the Communist Party labeled the Voice of America “enemy radio.”
In November and December of 1950, the Xinhua News Agency’s Internal Reference Report published a series of articles that said, “The cities of Tianjin, Shanghai, Wuhan, Wuxi, Hangzhou, Xi’an, Changsha, Taiyuan and others, are full of people who are listening to the Voice of America.”
These articles also reported, “Ordinary businessmen think Voice of America news is quick and reliable, as it reported early the loss of Seoul and Pyongyang while our papers were slow.” Some people were starting to doubt the reports in official media. News from the Voice of America was circulated by word of mouth, and circulated very widely.
On November 20, 1950, the People’s Daily and other Party papers started reporting with great fanfare that “people in all walks of life demand a stop to listening to Voice of America,” to “end the rumors spread by enemy spies.”
Qinghua University Professor Sheng Chenghua wrote an article saying Voice of America was “a nastier weapon than the atomic bomb.” Students all over China marched in the streets to warn the masses against the Voice of America.
Yang Kuisong, a historian of the Chinese Communist Party, has written, “Gradually, choosing whether to listen to Voice of America became a major political question of patriotism—even a kind of decision point between being revolutionary and counterrevolutionary.”
Listening to the Voice of America became “secret listening” to the Voice of America.
In 1955, China began jamming the Voice of America. The method was to broadcast meaningless noise, or another radio station, on the same frequency.
In the 1960s, the United States fell into a long war in Vietnam. Mao Zedong sent 300,000 troops to “resist America and help Vietnam,” and the enmity between China and America grew deeper.
*《英语900句》 · 玉米地 · 大学梦*
English 900 – Corn Country – University Dream
In the early 1970s, to counter the Soviet threat, China and America improved their relations.
In 1972, the American President Richard Nixon visited China, and in 1973 the American government established a liaison office in Beijing. The two countries, enemies for 20 years, were now rebuilding lines of communication.
RITA HECHLER (retired reporter for the Voice of America):
“After Nixon returned from China, the head of our Chinese Branch returned from a Foreign Service posting in Taiwan. He said they were using a very good textbook there, and we ought to give it a try.”
In 1972, Voice of America began its program English 900.
That year a Beijing youth, the 20-year-old Ping De, enlisted in the People’s Liberation Army. His first job was to care for the horses in an army farm outside Beijing. One day a fellow soldier gave him a copy of the book English 900.
Getting hold of this book was very difficult. At this period, in the latter period of the Cultural Revolution, China was gradually re-establishing contact with the rest of the world.
An army friend of mine said that since some of our foreign policy leaders were going abroad to the United Nations, they were able to bring home some copies of English 900, which had the status of a semi-classified document, “internal educational material.”
Later people told me that Voice of America had a broadcast that used this English 900 text. So that’s how I studied it. I bought a small radio just for this. In those days, at 60 or 70 yuan it was very expensive, a very luxurious piece of home electronics. My work unit was explicitly encouraging everyone to study English, but also explicitly said one must not listen to the enemy radio.
Ping De was well aware that VOA was “enemy radio,” but he was hungry to learn. At that time he was living by himself in a horse barn. During the day he dealt with the horses, and at night he listened to English 900. In his words, “I felt I was living like a noble; it was beautiful.” Later he was transferred to the electricians’ squad. Listening to “enemy radio” in a place with so many people, with eyes everywhere, was very difficult.
What could I do? I burrowed down into my quilt, put in an earphone, and listened to the course. But after all, I still often had to recite it out loud. For if you’re studying English, imitation is something you can’t do without. In the end I had no choice. It was summer, and in the evenings I just packed up my radio and book, picked up my flashlight, and ran out into the nearby—in summer the nearby field was mainly planted in corn, and the stalks were tall. Once you went into the cornfield, nobody could find you, and you could study with Voice of America.
Ping De recalled,
“One time, when I came out of the cornfield to go back to my dorm, I was tailed for a long time by the night patrol. Maybe he suspected I was dating a female soldier. In fact, the trouble you’d get into from being caught listening to enemy radio would certainly be much worse than being caught on a date with a woman.”
We called that sort of thing “making it an issue of politics, of principle” – if you listen to enemy radio, you are or you may very well be an element in contact with the enemy. The punishment would be severe.
Thinking back on it, I studied English 900 for more than half a year. It was not an easy thing to do! Rita Hechler was doing the show, and each time at the end she would say, “This is the Voice of America’s English 900 course, with Rita Hechler hosting from Washington.”
To tell the truth, I myself never thought I would be creating a very successful VOA program. For one thing, I think the moment was extremely opportune, and I think I have a good voice for broadcasting. I was very enthusiastic about this program, and I really worked hard on it. I think that’s why it was a success. Mainly, I think, it was that at that time, in mainland China, really, ordinary people all wanted to learn English, but unfortunately there were no English teachers.
Thanks to English 900, Ping De could speak excellent American English.
In 1975, the head of his unit gave him a college recommendation, because his English was good and he did his job well. That is how listening to “enemy radio” helped him fulfill his dream of going to college.
In the winter of 1977, China resumed the college entrance examination system, suspended for ten years by the Cultural Revolution. The traditional watchword, “Knowledge changes destiny,” became realistic once again, inviting large numbers of young people to study as a means to social respect. And learning English became especially popular. Voice of America’s English 900 became a familiar point of reference. One listener, Lu Xin, recalled:
“By the 1980s, the atmosphere had completely changed. Some colleges even put Voice of America programs on their own broadcast systems, and nobody worried about it.”
In 1979, the U.S. and the People’s Republic established formal relations. After the horrific ten-year “Cultural Revolution,” the Chinese people viewed the outside world—especially the West—with great curiosity and hope.
For the new generation of college students, Voice of America’s news programs, and programs in Special English, were among the main ways to follow current events and learn English. More and more people made listening to the Voice of America a regular part of their daily lives.
In the 1980s, according to Chinese officials, the Voice of America’s listeners in China numbered over 17 million.
Spring 1989，the Tiananmen democracy movement sweeps the country. Zhao Ziyang, General Secretary of the Communist Party visits the fasting students in Tiananmen Square. Because Zhao Ziyang sympathized with the students and opposed the use of armed force to suppress them. He was removed from office, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest. During the period of his confinement, Zhao Ziyang listened almost every day to the Voice of America.
WANG YANNAN (daughter of Zhao Ziyang):
VOA has some programs about China. I always remember, at a certain hour of the day, my father would lean over to listen to that tiny radio, almost pressing it against his ear. It was really by this listening to the radio, listening to the foreign reports, that my father tried to follow the world situation and the events unfolding in China.
Among the top leaders of the Party, the government, and the military, Voice of America had more listeners than just Zhao Ziyang. Li Peng’s June 4 Diary, published overseas, mentions VOA in over a dozen places, showing that even the hardline Li Peng, Zhao Ziyang’s chief opponent, member of the Politburo Standing Committee and Premier of China, was a “loyal” VOA listener.
April 24: In the morning I heard the “Voice of America” say that the students went on strike to protest the police use of violence, to pressure the government to grant democracy and freedom.
May 11: The “Voice of America” broadcast said … The large demonstration on April 27 marked a turning point in Chinese history.
May 30: The “Voice of America” said China is “conducting a Stalinesque purge of the Party.”
-- from Li Peng’s June 4 Diary.
The Tiananmen democracy movement of 1989 raised the Voice of America’s prestige in China to new heights. The students in Tiananmen Square even set up a loudspeaker broadcasting the Voice of America.
All-out effort to block the Voice of America
After the June 4 crackdown against the democracy movement, the Chinese government started jamming the Voice of America again, setting up unmarked jamming facilities all over the country, telling the outside world they were relay stations.
The interference was usually quite powerful. We couldn’t hear anything but static. This was really fierce jamming. Fierce control over information. As I now think back on it – how sad it is to have to rely on American or French radio to know what’s going on in China!
These jamming stations broadcast sometimes pure noise, and sometimes folk songs with drums, gongs, and shrill pipes. A listener in Sichuan wrote in:
“I use an earphone so the neighbors won’t know. But the drums and gongs are deafening! If I listen too long, I get dizzy and see stars. Still, I keep listening.”
In September 1994, VOA began television broadcasts in Chinese.
In July 1999, VOA established a Chinese-language web site. The Voice of America had grown from mere radio to a multimedia operation: radio, television, and the Internet.
Just as it jams the radio broadcasts, China now blocks the Voice of America web site. In spite of this, by the turn of the century VOA’s Chinese web site was getting 100,000 hits each day, and every week the radio broadcasts were heard in China by 8 to 10 million people.
Today, though the Chinese people have incomparably better sources of information than when the country was sealed off from the outside world, still there has been no loosening of the blockade against Voice of America radio and Internet. And setting up a satellite television dish requires explicit permission from the police.
News that cannot be blocked
Many people in China are still getting reliable news from the outside world through the Voice of America.
Well-known public intellectual Yao Jianfu has said that Chen Xitong, late Mayor of Beijing and member of the Politburo and the State Council, relied on Voice of America for news during his confinement in Qincheng Prison.
I asked him, “How do you know that the outside world is talking about your corruption case?” He said, “They allow a radio here.” He was listening to the Voice of America. So from the Voice of America, in prison, he heard all sorts of news. I said, “That’s amazing! VOA is still giving you that much information!” So in this regard I think one must not underestimate VOA’s function. As far as he was concerned, it was like, aside from the People’s Daily, the Voice of America was where he got his information about everything.
I know that some high leaders—especially those who are somewhat out of favor—even leaders at the highest levels such as the members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the information they get from the Communist Party is not always completely true. So they listen to Voice of America too. “Listen to everyone,” as the saying goes. They listen openly. Their secretaries or bodyguards find the station for them and tell them, “Sir, the program is about to start,” and so on. They do this openly. Recently, after I came to America, a friend visiting from China said to me, “The highest leaders now all listen to Voice of America.”
China’s famous blind human rights activist Chen Guangcheng was released from prison on September 9, 2010, five years after his arrest. But he remained under house arrest, under heavy guard. During this time he listened almost every day to the Voice of America shortwave broadcast.
When I first returned home it was impossible to listen, because I didn’t have the equipment. A day or two later I fixed up a broken old radio, and with difficulty I could hear some Voice of America reports. But it worked very poorly at that time.
Chen Guangcheng’s house arrest drew the attention of the world. Voice of America followed the story closely.
Especially on February 11th and 12th (of 2011), I heard reports from Voice of America. At that time it was mainly after 8:00 pm, I remember. And there were also rebroadcasts. At 9:00 they broadcast it again—after 9:00.
Hearing the Voice of America must have meant a lot to you, at that time?
What shall I say—yes, at that time it was my only source of information.
Later, the people overseeing Chen Guangcheng’s confinement took away his radio. His only source of information about the outside world was cut off.
In April 2012, Chen Guangcheng, with help from four online friends, eluded the guard of over a hundred people stationed around his village, and entered the American Embassy in Beijing. After negotiations between the two countries, Chen Guangcheng and his wife and children were allowed to leave China for the United States.
Although the Chinese Communist Party no longer has the ability to block outside information as it once could, its blocking power is still pretty formidable. How many people do you think can get around the Great Firewall these days? They say young people can all get past the firewall, but they can’t all do that. The fact is that not even one percent of the population can get to the outside internet. The vast majority of people, especially in the countryside, people are poor—people always forget this, but half the population of China is at or below the United Nations poverty line. How are they going to buy or play around with computers? For these ordinary people, radio is a very important thing, more important than any other media.
The end of the Cold War brings no change in status for the “enemy radio”
The Cold War is long past. China grows ever more deeply involved with America culturally, economically, and politically. But for Chinese authorities there is no real change in Voice of America’s status as “enemy radio.”
In 2013 General Liu Yazhou, member of the Central Committee and Political Commissar of the National Defense University, had his university join with the military’s Political Department and General Staff Department, and the Academy of Social Sciences, to produce a television documentary, called Silent Contest. It expressed in full measure the hostility and distrust of the United Sates felt by the Chinese Army, Government, and Party. It warned the people that America was working through five channels—politics, culture, thought, institutions and society—to overthrow China. In one of these the leading force, it is said, is the Voice of America.
CLIP FROM SILENT CONTEST:
Too much evidence shows that the control and use of the internet has already become a major means and key channel by which the United States launches political attacks and tries to overthrow targeted governments. There is not the slightest doubt that the next target they have in their sights is China. This is no sensationalist exaggeration.
An Opening, a Light, the World
美国国会众议员罗斯·雷提南 (Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen)：“你们给他们带来亮光。你们给他们指引了道路。感谢你们所做的一切！”
U. S. CONGRESSWOMAN ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN:
And you’re giving them that light. You’re showing them the way! Thank you for what you do—¡Muchas gracias!
美国国会众议员戴纳·罗拉巴克 (Congressman Dana Rohrabacher)：“美国之音发挥了卓越的作用。我要向美国之音道贺，祝贺它同我们在自由事业中的最伟大同盟 ——中国人民携手共进。”
U. S. CONGRESSWOMAN DANA ROHRBACHER:
The Voice of America is fulfilling a wonderful role, and I’m here to congratulate the Voice of America, and reach out to the Chinese people who are America’s greatest ally in the cause of freedom.
美国国会众议员克里斯·史密斯 (Congressman Chris Smith)：“你们带着希望的信息，自由的信息，突破了竹幕，突破了中国的防火墙。”
U. S. CONGRESSMAN CHRIS SMITH:
What you have been able to do is pierce the great bamboo curtain, the great firewall of China, with a message of hope, a message of freedom….
WEI JINGSHENG: It’s like when a person is locked inside a dark room, and suddenly a ray of light breaks in: it’s thrilling, it’s inspiring.
When we were sealed inside an iron drum, it made an opening, a tiny opening through which we could see a very big world.
Stay tuned to the Voice of America.