We all recognize the value of whistleblowers in our society, and often admire their courage. In reality, not all of us want to be a whistleblower for fear of possible reprisal, even when we know it’s for a good cause. Allen Zeng, a software engineer in Silicon Valley, has decided to devote his efforts to creating a business that helps the Chinese to "blow the whistle."
The business, called the "Sound of Hope Radio Network" and of which Mr. Zeng is the president, focuses on broadcasting to China. Modern technology has made it easy to broadcast to China from Silicon Valley, despite the fact that they are almost on opposite sites of the world, and the political and social environment in the "Middle Kingdom" makes the Sound of Hope very appealing to millions of Chinese.
The political system in China is harsh for whistleblowers; even journalists often face reprisal if they report things that the communist government does not like.
One example is Cheng Yizhong, the former editor-in-chief of Southern Metropolis Daily and the winner of the 2005 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize. Under Cheng’s professional guidance and independent spirit, the Southern Metropolis Daily was one of the most successful daily newspapers in China and often reported on "sensitive" issues. In December 2003, it reported a suspected SARS case in Guangzhou before the government publicly released information about the situation. The newspaper also revealed in April 2003 that a college student was beaten to death while in police custody. Public outcry over the death led to the arrest of several local government and police officials and encouraged the Chinese to advocate for the protection of their rights.
The great success of the Southern Metropolis Daily, however, resulted in the communist regime retaliating against Cheng and his staff. The authorities conducted a spurious investigation into Southern Metropolis Daily’s finances. In 2004, Cheng was detained for five months but never charged. He was released in August 2004 and barred from practicing journalism. His colleagues, deputy editor-in-chief Yu Huafeng and editor Li Minying, were charged with bribery and sentenced to respective jail terms of eight and six years. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, more than 40 Chinese journalists are in prison, mostly for revealing corruption among high-level government officials, advocating political reforms, or reporting on other banned topics.
For the ordinary Chinese, who are certainly less privileged than the journalists, the chance that they can make their voices heard is even more remote. There were 78,000 cases of social unrest in China in 2004, involving more than 3.7 million people. Even this large number likely represents only the tip of the iceberg, because it often takes months for a civil dispute to develop into a full-blown violent conflict. When conflict occurs, it is because less-confrontational actions have failed to resolve the matter.
The Communist Party’s current campaign of "ideological strengthening" and control of information, which has taken place alongside a push for a "harmonious society," further weakens the ability of ordinary citizens and Chinese journalists to "blow the whistle."
This dark reality that is today’s China was the catalyst for the birth of the Sound of Hope Radio Network on the other side of the globe. Allen Zeng, like many other Chinese immigrants who have graduated from American universities and settled down in the United States, saw the need for free media and uncensored reporting in his mother tongue and in his mother country. The Silicon Valley software engineer conducted a careful study of the technical issues with a dozen of his friends, and in 2003 they founded the Sound of Hope Radio Network (SOH).
The radio network is a not-for-profit organization registered in California. One part of its business is the AM/FM radio broadcasting of news and entertainment to cities across North America, Asia, and Australia. The programs are in Chinese and local languages for different target audiences. They try to offer a unique perspective on Asia and its people and serve as a bridge between Asian and Western cultures.
The other part of its business is broadcasting directly to China through shortwave radio and connecting with audiences in China with toll-free telephone lines.
An Old Technology Still Thriving Today
SOH uses AM and FM broadcast frequencies to provide the best quality for its city broadcasts. However, the more familiar AM/FM middle-range radio frequencies are not useful for the long-distance broadcast to China. This is because the Earth is round and electromagnetic waves can travel only in a straight line. For international broadcasting, shortwave radio is the choice. This technology uses electromagnetic waves in the frequency range of 3 to 30 MHz, which can transmit for long distances by bouncing off the layers of charged particles in the Earth’s ionosphere.
The success of using shortwave radio for worldwide communication goes back to the late 1930s. Since then, nation-to-nation broadcasts have used shortwave radio most of the time, so that one nation does not need to get permission to set up its broadcast station in another nation and yet can still make its voice heard.
While advances in communication technology have made great strides since the 1930s, restriction of free information is still the law of the land in many totalitarian countries today. While China Central Television (CCTV), one of the Chinese communist government’s six top national press media agencies, uses American cable channels and satellite TV to broadcast in the United States, there is no such equal right for the American media. For years, the Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Asia (RFA), all funded by the United States Congress, have had to rely on shortwave radio to broadcast to China.
Due to tight control of the Chinese press by the Communist Party propaganda department, Chinese citizens do not trust the state media and have developed a healthy appetite for foreign information on shortwave radio broadcasts. Such a trend is particularly strong in times of political uncertainty. For example, in the early summer of 1989, before and after the Tiananmen Square Massacre, Voice of America (VOA) became the top choice for news, and people were talking about VOA on the streets in Beijing.
Shortwave radio broadcasting has its disadvantages. Its signal is not as stable and clear as middle-range AM/FM radio frequencies, and it can be "jammed" by the receiving country. The Chinese communist government has its own network of shortwave radio stations that are programmed to broadcast noise on the same frequency bands as VOA and RFA. The jamming noise can make listening to foreign broadcasts difficult and unpleasant. Such jamming noise normally is strong in the populated cities but less effective in the vast rural areas of China, far away from the jamming stations. In politically stable times, the Chinese regime may relax its jamming efforts, but they intensify when people’s dissatisfaction runs high.
Jamming can be partly overcome by the broadcaster’s use of stronger transmitters and the addition of more frequency channels.
As for the listeners, better-equipped radio receivers can help a great deal. Better quality radio receivers at an affordable price are extremely popular in China for listening to shortwave radio broadcasts. China manufactures the greatest number of radio receivers in the world. In 2004, its production of radio receivers amounted to 100 million, and half of them were equipped with the shortwave frequency band.
That number hints at the size of the potential Chinese audience for shortwave radio broadcasting. The remaining challenge is to have programs that interest the Chinese public. SOH has found its own niche in connecting to its audience in China.
Telecommunications Shorten the Distance
The wide availability of telephone service in China, including mobile phones, enables SOH to communicate with its audience as easily as in North America. The radio network announces its toll-free numbers that the Chinese can use to call in to voice their opinions or tell their personal stories.
One listener called in to a live SOH program to complain about local officials taking away her family home but refusing to pay a fair price. Her story went out on the air right away. A month later, the same woman called SOH to thank the station for getting her problem resolved. It turned out that the government officials in her region also listened to the SOH, and they became worried when their unlawful dealings were exposed on a foreign radio station. They chose to settle the matter by paying the lady a fair price.
Not all callers get such positive results, but the Chinese people find the radio station a useful channel through which they can be heard and a place to get uncensored information and to feel connected to the outside world. In listener feedback to SOH, many expressed their appreciation to SOH for serving as a voice for the Chinese people.
Reporters for SOH go a step further than just recording call-in messages. They follow up on news leads and conduct investigative reports on Chinese events. Many eager-to-help listeners send in news leads to SOH. Some of them become reporters for SOH inside China. After receiving an important lead, the overseas SOH staff start their investigation with telephone interviews. Because of concerns over its Chinese reporters’ safety, SOH rarely asks them to do investigations on site.
SOH reporters in the United States or in other countries make numerous phone calls to China to talk with witnesses and key persons involved in the event. Then they produce reports and broadcast back to China. In this way, SOH can "blow the whistle" loud and clear on behalf of the Chinese people and provide its audience with detailed and uncensored information. Their report on the gas explosion in Sunjiawan Coal Mine is a typical example.
On February 14, 2005, a severe explosion occurred in Sunjiawan Coal Mine in Liaoning Province. Xinhua, the state media, reported that 214 miners had been killed, but other information from China indicated that the disaster was more severe. The government used the paramilitary armed police to seal the entire Sunjiawan area, a routine practice for the Chinese communist regime, and they allowed no independent reporters to get into the site.
Reporters with SOH had their own way to break up the information blockade: They made numerous phone calls and conducted extensive telephone interviews. By talking with eyewitnesses, family members of the explosion victims, and other people with inside information, SOH discovered many details and contradicted Xinhua on the severity of the explosion. The SOH reports revealed that the explosion at Sunjiawan killed most of the miners working at the time and that the actual death toll was as high as 300 or more. SOH also found out that Sunjiawan Coal Mine had had a deteriorating safety record over the previous few years. The managers were only interested in making money by increasing coal production and had no concern for the safety of the miners, most of whom were migrant workers from the poor regions of the country.
SOH’s detailed report on the Sunjiawan Coal Mine explosion was like a slap in the face to the communist authorities, who had always been used to covering up industry disasters. The pain this caused the Chinese leaders has likely motivated them to address the real problem. On February 23, six days after SOH made the detailed reality known to the world, Premier Wen Jiabao personally chaired the State Council’s executive meeting to discuss coal mine safety problems. The State Council decided to suspend Liu Guoqiang, the deputy governor of Liaoning Province in charge of industry production and safety, from his job. The State Council also noted in a news release by Xinhua that "the large gas explosion in Sunjiawan Coal Mine caused very severe damage to people’s life and property and made a very bad impression both domestically and internationally."
A Chinese Initiative
The Sound of Hope Network has enjoyed a fast-paced expansion since it was founded in 2003. Advances in technology and the growing need for independent Chinese radio broadcasting are two major factors that have benefited this new organization. Another important factor in the success of SOH is the people running the operation—Chinese immigrants who know well both the Chinese and Western cultures.
Expension of the Sound of Hope Network
Mar 2003 Registered in the State of California as a not-for-profit 501(c)3 corporation
Jun 2003 Launched official website (http://www.soundofhope.org) and made SOH reports available in both text and audio format
Mar 2004 Started shortwave broadcasting to China two hours a day
Apr 2004 Launched SOH audio newspaper that can be delivered electronically
Jun 2004 SOH AM/FM radio broadcasting established in 20 cities across North America, Asia, and Australia
Sep 2004 Launched SOH English and Spanish language broadcasting
Nov 2004 Produced audio version of the Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party
Dec 2004 Increased broadcasting to China to three hours per day. SOH AM/FM radio broadcasting expanded to 30 cities across North America, Asia, and Australia Launched SOH French language broadcasting
Mar 2005 Increased shortwave broadcast hour to China to four hours per day.
Oct 2005 SOH AM / FM radio broadcasting expanded to 40 cities across North America, Asia, and Australia
Dec 2005 Added additional three hour broadcasting per day to China, in a different frequency
The population of Chinese immigrants in North America has increased significantly. A significant fraction of them are first-generation Chinese immigrants from the mainland, many of them arriving as overseas students. After settling down in the United States and getting over their initial culture shock, they started to feel the urge to bridge the two cultures — their native Chinese culture and their newfound Western culture. Delivery of uncensored information and views to China is one of the many things they choose to do.
Allen Zeng has found many Chinese Americans who share his dream and views, thanks to the social network he established while practicing Falun Gong. Together they have made the Sound of Hope Network a successful endeavor.
The SOH staff team consists of mainly part-time volunteers. Many of them hold advanced degrees in science, medicine, and management as most of them came to America as overseas students. Reporters and program hosts span a variety of professional occupations, and they have brought with them rich skills and diverse experiences.
The SOH’s strength is its staff, who know China very well and can choose the right program topics. In November 2004, The Epoch Times, a multi-language newspaper founded by overseas Chinese, published the Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party, an editorial series that reviews Chinese history under Communist Party rule. The people in SOH immediately recognized the value of the Nine Commentaries, and they immediately made the decision to make it a major product for broadcast to China.
Time has proved it a correct decision. Their Chinese listeners really liked the program and sent in many positive messages as feedback. They felt that the Nine Commentaries addressed their history with facts and was provocative enough to make people rethink the Communist Party. Soon after SOH aired its audio version of the Nine Commentaries, the SOH website saw a three-fold increase in visits from the mainland, and the most frequently downloaded file was the Nine Commentaries. When SOH reporters talked to people in China, they heard many interesting stories. They were told that late last year, when many residents in Beijing went to buy shortwave radio receivers in order to listen to the Nine Commentaries on SOH, the receivers were soon sold out in many stores.
The successful program also brought new challenges to SOH. By mid-2005, the Chinese regime intensified its jamming of SOH broadcasts. Many listeners sent SOH messages complaining about the jamming. Supportive insiders told SOH reporters that the communist government had started to use military equipment to jam the SOH signal. In the past, only the Chinese Air Force radar system was used to jam foreign broadcasts, and it did so only occasionally and for selected content. But after the Nine Commentaries became the hot topic and many Chinese people symbolically renounced their affiliation with the Communist Party on the overseas "Quit the CCP" website, the government ordered the PLA to use its advanced electronic system to jam SOH. Insiders said that the equipment was recently imported from France and belongs to the Chinese special missile force commonly known as "er-pao" or "the second artillery force."
To overcome the new technical challenge, SOH has several options. It can add more channels and increase its broadcasting time to make jamming less effective. It can frequently change its broadcasting frequency and time, playing a cat and mouse game with the communist government. It can improve its Web broadcast capability to serve the Chinese Internet users better. And it plans to add satellite radio broadcasting, which is hard to jam via an on-the-ground signal.
While all of these options may work, they will mean higher operating costs. Funding for SOH has been tenuous. It relies heavily on individual and private donations for its basic operations. Income from advertising and program sponsorships has yet to pick up in its metropolitan broadcast areas. Because Western companies that are interested in the Chinese market are also afraid of the Chinese communist government, it is very unlikely that SOH’s broadcasts to China will attract any advertising.
Besides advertising sales, grants from various foundations are another possible source for funding. As SOH builds its record of accomplishments and continues to receive support from its Chinese audience, this three-year-old, not-for-profit company may have a good chance of receiving some grant funding. There are a few foundations in existence that are interested in supporting the promotion of freedom, human rights, and democracy in China.
Victor Gu is a correspondent for Chinascope.