Radio Free Asia: Costly, Counterproductive China Needs Jobs, Time, and a Rising Middle Class - Not Radio Provocation - to Erase Human Rights Woes

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THE House of Representatives failed last month to restrict trade with China. If successful, the move would have diluted President Clinton's effort to de-link China's "most favored nation" status and issues of human rights. But in an earlier move, the House voted a $10 million appropriation to establish Radio Free Asia. Some now hope the Senate will find even more money for RFA.

The Senate should forget about starting Radio Free Asia at all - and urge House members to do the same. Radio Free Asia will not only be a waste of money, it will bring the opposite of what its backers hope. It will harm efforts for human rights in the countries it broadcasts to.

Radio Free Asia has been likened to Radio Free Europe, which broadcast news behind the old Iron Curtain. But the analogy with China doesn't hold up. There is no Berlin Wall, no equivalent "Bamboo Curtain." The Great Wall, designed centuries ago to keep people out, now serves to attract tourists from inside China and out.

The China I just lived in for four months, while hardly a model of democracy, was not the closed state I had expected. Chinese people are able to receive Western television programs dubbed in Mandarin. Chinese radio and television offer lessons in English. An exhibit mounted by the municipal government titled "A Better Beijing in the Year 2000" promised, among other things, that by the year 2010 Beijingers would be able to receive 50 television channels, both domestic and foreign. Even today, TV antennas sprout from vendors' stalls on the streets of Beijing and boats on the Grand Canal of Suzhou. Satellite dishes don't dominate the skyline, but they are becoming more common. China is now hooked up to the Internet, offering a new computer link to the West.

These changes do not suggest a society shutting its doors.

An even better sign occurred in June when the Chinese press promptly reported China's worst single air disaster - the crash of a flight after takeoff from Xian that killed all 160 aboard. The news appeared on Page 1 of the English-language China Daily and on the first news page of the Chinese-language People's Daily. This is in contrast to delayed reporting of the murder in March of 24 Taiwan tourists in southern China, an event first brought to light when the relatives of the murdered people held a news conference in Taiwan. In between, of course, was the fifth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square incident, which passed virtually unnoticed in Beijing. One could almost hear a collective sigh of relief as a sunny and uneventful June 4 faded into nightfall.

Speaking of the press, China Daily reported almost weekly the announcements of additional joint ventures between China and outside corporations, including Boeing, Anheuser-Busch, Honda, Samsung, Siemens, ABN AMRO Bank, and McDonnell-Douglas Corporation - to name a few. …