The Trump administration plans to cut $4.5 million from Radio Free Asia in a move that critics say would sharply reduce Chinese language broadcasts into China by the pro-democracy radio.
The budget cuts were announced at RFA's Washington headquarters recently and drew opposition from the staff and the radio's supporters in Congress, according to administration officials.
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The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the government entity that is RFA's parent organization, defended the funding cuts to Mandarin-language radio as part of a shift to the use of social media—outlets in China that are tightly controlled by the government and explicitly ban RFA content.
"RFA will continue to focus on Mandarin through social media which is the platform the agency has determined to be most cost-effective," the board said in a statement to the Washington Free Beacon.
The proposed budget cut from $40 million last year to $35 million in fiscal 2018 is "in keeping with President Trump's focus on streamlining government expenses," the statement said.
"RFA is an authoritative source of East and Southeast Asian news, and will continue to substitute for domestic media in Asian countries that prevent or restrict freedom of the press," the board said.
Rohit Mahajan, a spokesman for RFA, a federally funded non-profit organization, declined to comment on the cuts, citing a policy that prohibits public discussion of budget matters. "We look forward to Congress establishing foreign policy priorities on China," he said.
RFA President Libby Liu said in a statement: "I'm really proud of the work done by Radio Free Asia’s Mandarin service in bringing incisive news and uncensored perspectives to China. We hear from Chinese listeners every day who are yearning to know more about events happening in their country that China’s state-controlled media either chooses to ignore or misrepresent."
RFA Mandarin broadcasts have a responsibility to audiences that fill an information gap that the radio is working tirelessly to close, she said.
The cuts come as foreign states, such as China and Russia, are sharply increasing soft-power official broadcasting and propaganda activities directed against U.S. interests and allies.
RFA as a semi-official radio station is devoted to promoting democracy and freedom in China and Asia. It broadcasts in Burmese, Cantonese, Khmer, Korean, Lao, Mandarin, Tibetan, Uyghur, and Vietnamese on shortwave, medium wave, satellite, television, and the internet.
The Voice of America, the more official U.S. government broadcaster, took a similar step in 2011, cutting off short-wave broadcasts into China during the Obama administration.
VOA came under fire from Congress recently for curtailing an interview with an exiled Chinese billionaire, Guo Wengui, who has been revealing high-level corruption among Chinese leaders.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) also criticized the proposed budget cut. "China's propaganda and censorship efforts are growing, and now even reach into the United States," he said. "We need to smartly invest in countering these efforts so that China’s authoritarians do not gain a strategic advantage in the battle of ideas."
Information specialists criticized the radio cuts.
Retired Navy Capt. Jim Fanell, a former Pacific Fleet intelligence chief, said the Trump administration should bolster both RFA and VOA broadcasts that are urgently needed to combat China's approach to power politics. "Radio is a powerful application and we should not walk away from it," he said.
"On a daily basis American citizens are bombarded with Chinese propaganda from state-owned media outlets like China Daily, People's Daily, and Xinhua," said Fanell.
"In order to keep up with and attempt to counter Beijing's strategic narrative, venues like Radio Free Asia provide an assured method of communication to the citizens of China, something that Internet-based communications cannot do," he added.
"The short-term savings of cutting Radio Free Asia's Mandarin broadcasts can in no way mitigate the long-term damage to U.S. national security interests from the public broadcast of the truth of Beijing's attack on freedom."
J. Michael Waller, an information operations expert, said the budget cuts would help China's censors maintain party control over Chinese media and messaging. Beijing likely will cheer the proposed funding cuts, he noted.
"The U.S. government should be protesting Beijing's censorship, not facilitating it," said Waller, a senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy.
"The Communist Party already controls social media access and content on the mainland. A U.S. shift to social media in China, at the expense of broadcasting, further empowers the censors."
Waller said any change in funding for Mandarin language broadcasts should be focused on breaking through official Chinese media censorship.
"Although the Chinese people have been shifting heavily toward censored social media, hundreds of millions of Chinese still listen to traditional radio broadcasting," he noted. "This is why the Communist authorities continue to jam Radio Free Asia and other independent Mandarin-language media."
The RFA cuts are part of an overall cut of $63 million in funding cuts for government-sponsored radio broadcasts, such as the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and other foreign language broadcast outlets.
The BBG budget document sent to Congress for fiscal 2018 shows that a total of $4.69 million will be cut from the Mandarin service. Slight increases in RFA funding for its offices in Taiwan and Hong Kong will offset some of those cuts for a total cut of $4.55 million to the entire radio. The budget requests a total of $35.3 million.
The Chinese language broadcast cuts are part of plans by RFA to "focus its Mandarin resources on social media, which is the platform the agency has determined to be most cost-effective," the report said.
The Mandarin budget RFA headquarters for the coming year will instead be around $300,000.
China imposes strict controls on all social media. Inside China, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are blocked. Chinese microblogging sites such as WeChat and Weibo, which have tens of millions of users, explicitly block all content from RFA.
Additionally, the Chinese government recently took steps to further restrict the use of virtual private networks, or VPNs, that are widely used to circumvent Chinese censorship.
The RFA cuts appear to be part of the Trump administration's focus on the threat from North Korea while diminishing its policy focus on the threat posed by China.
John Tkacik, a former State Department China expert, said Radio Free Asia is "probably the single most reliable, accurate, and comprehensive source of information the Chinese have on civil society, environment, and rule of law news today."
"They certainly aren't getting it from the Voice of America which still relies for much of its Chinese language programming on Chinese governmental sources like Xinhua and Global Times," he said.
Congress last year mandated that the poorly managed BBG dissolve its managing board and appoint a single chief executive officer.
The leading candidate for the post is Michael Pack, an experienced broadcast journalist who is currently president and CEO of the California-based Claremont Institute and publisher of the conservative Claremont Review of Books.
The Trump administration also is seeking a replacement for Voice of America Director Amanda Bennett, a liberal journalist who is married to former Washington Post Publisher Donald Graham.
Bennett and Graham founded the group TheDream.US, which provides scholarships to illegal aliens.
William C. Triplett II, a former professional staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who specialized on China, said former Vice President Joe Biden help launch RFA as a senator.
"This is Joe Biden's baby. He wrote the legislation. Will he intervene with Hill Democrats to rescue it or will he let it die? TBD," Triplett stated in an email.
A spokeswoman for Biden did not respond to an email seeking comment.