How Voice of America gets around the Great Firewall of China

For Chinese citizens, accessing information that Beijing hasn’t screened beforehand is hard enough. For blacklisted "subversive organizations," though, drawing an audience in the first place can be infinitely more difficult. Take Voice of America, for example. The U.S. government’s official broadcasting arm develops shows in English, Mandarin, and Cantonese — but in China, it might ...

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

For Chinese citizens, accessing information that Beijing hasn't screened beforehand is hard enough. For blacklisted "subversive organizations," though, drawing an audience in the first place can be infinitely more difficult. Take Voice of America, for example. The U.S. government's official broadcasting arm develops shows in English, Mandarin, and Cantonese -- but in China, it might as well be broadcasting dead air.

Only 0.1 percent of China's population actually listens to VOA's radio and TV shows, according to an oversight report (pdf) issued yesterday by the U.S. State Department. Meanwhile, the Chinese government actively jams VOA's transmissions by playing competing material on all its frequencies and blocks Chinese Internet users from accessing VOA's Chinese Web site. It's a coordinated strategy that should sound familiar to anyone who's lived in China or read about the mainland regime's penchant for censorship.

But VOA has its own tricks, too. Among them? A never-ending e-mail campaign that tells eight million Chinese a day to use proxy servers to circumvent the Great Firewall:

For Chinese citizens, accessing information that Beijing hasn’t screened beforehand is hard enough. For blacklisted "subversive organizations," though, drawing an audience in the first place can be infinitely more difficult. Take Voice of America, for example. The U.S. government’s official broadcasting arm develops shows in English, Mandarin, and Cantonese — but in China, it might as well be broadcasting dead air.

Only 0.1 percent of China’s population actually listens to VOA’s radio and TV shows, according to an oversight report (pdf) issued yesterday by the U.S. State Department. Meanwhile, the Chinese government actively jams VOA’s transmissions by playing competing material on all its frequencies and blocks Chinese Internet users from accessing VOA’s Chinese Web site. It’s a coordinated strategy that should sound familiar to anyone who’s lived in China or read about the mainland regime’s penchant for censorship.

But VOA has its own tricks, too. Among them? A never-ending e-mail campaign that tells eight million Chinese a day to use proxy servers to circumvent the Great Firewall:

To develop its list of email recipients, the Chinese branch collected more than 20 million email addresses, then used IBB’s anti-censor­ship money to hire an outside contractor to cull down the list and take over delivery of the branch’s daily email messages. As a result, the number of outgoing emails increased from 300,000 to 8 million per day.

The service also has a highly developed mobile strategy. In 2008, VOA convinced a major (unnamed) cell phone company to install four language programs on all the 6.5 million devices the company hoped to sell that year. Users could then use the software to subscribe to VOA language-learning content. The list of programs included "Learn a Word," "Go English," "Popular American," and "Business Etiquette." By the end of 2008, over 200,000 users had downloaded VOA Mandarin’s language software nearly 360,000 times. The OIG report speculates that this model could be expanded to other language services targeting new-media consumers.

Are you in China? Have you listened to VOA’s broadcasts, gotten its e-mails, or used its mobile apps? Let us know how it works in the comments.

Brian Fung is an editorial researcher at FP.
Tag: China

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