For years, the Chinese government has been putting pressure — direct or indirect — on United States government agencies for its own gain. Unfortunately, many in the U.S. bureaucracy have refused to face this problem.
The director of Voice of America, Amanda Bennett, gave several speeches in Washington D.C. around the time of World Press Freedom Day in April. Each time, someone from the audience raised a question: Why VOA did cave to Chinese pressure on April 19, 2017 and unplug a Mandarin show in the middle of an interview with the Chinese whistleblower and real estate tycoon Guo Wengui?
Later, VOA also placed five frontline Mandarin journalists on administrative leave, and proposed to fire three of them.
“There was no Chinese pressure. There was no US government pressure. There was no pressure from anyone. These were independent news judgement that were being made,” Bennett, who was appointed to serve as the VOA director in 2016, claimed confidently.
I am stunned. As one of the three journalists who have been on administration leave for over a year and are who are facing threat of termination by VOA regarding the Guo interview, I witnessed the great pressure coming from the Chinese government, which is unprecedented in the 76-year history of Voice of America.
The VOA Mandarin Service arranged a live interview with Guo in March 2017. In early April, I reported the interview plan to my supervisors. The plan was approved, and the effort of my team was complimented. In the morning of Friday April 14, Beijing time, the Mandarin Service promoted the scheduled program via all platforms, including television, radio, internet and social media.
One business day later, on Monday April 17, two days before our scheduled interview, the Chinese government launched a series of actions to stop the interview.
In the morning, the Chinese government issued an arrest warrant on Guo — a blatant attempt to manufacture pressure on him, as Guo had been out of China for some three years and had not yet been charged with any crime.
In the afternoon of the same day, two officials from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned the VOA Beijing correspondent, and demanded that VOA cancel the Guo interview. According to these Chinese officials, the interview with Guo would be interference with China’s internal affairs, and would disturb the incoming 19th party congress. They threatened to retaliate against VOA if the interview went ahead as planned, insinuating that the visas of the two VOA journalists in Beijing might be revoked.
When I received the news from Beijing, I was en route to New York City with my team, where the interview would take place. Immediately, I reported to the upper management. It was at this point that VOA’s stance of active support for the Guo interview shifted abruptly to one of active resistance. The management expressed their severe concern about the visa situation.
Facing Chinese blackmail from such high level, I advised the management not to give in.
The coordinated and high-stakes pressure from the PRC escalated on April 18.
Some 36 hours before the Guo interview, the officials from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs again met with the VOA Beijing correspondent, repeating their demand of the cancelation of the interview.
In the afternoon, the Chinese embassy in Washington D.C. placed numerous phone calls to VOA. A witness stated that an embassy official demanded to speak to someone in charge. The phone at the office of the VOA East Asian Division rang repeatedly over a couple of hours. The embassy person left a message to the Chinese branch, saying that if the Guo interview went forward, it would “permanently damage the relationship between the Chinese government and VOA.”
Meanwhile, the Chinese government released a 30-minute long video confession. Ma Jian, the former deputy minister of China’s State Security who was arrested for corruption, admitted that he took millions from Guo. Ma used to oversee China’s espionage around the world.
In the evening of April 18, 12 hours ahead of our scheduled interview, the Chinese government made a new maneuver. The Interpol Beijing Bureau sent out a “Red Notice” on Guo. In November 2016, Interpol elected Meng Hongwei, the deputy minister of the Chinese Public Security, to be its chairman. Even though, the Interpol headquarters did not place Guo’s name in its Most-Wanted list. To date, the “Red Notice” remains a Beijing action.
Such pressure tactics by a foreign power on the U.S. government to cancel a single interview and to discredit its subject were truly unprecedented.
At the 11th hour, the VOA management tried to persuade the Mandarin journalists to cancel or severely shorten the interview. We pushed back, citing our ethical obligations as journalists and our promise of a three-hour interview to our Chinese audience, and management relented.
But the next day, the VOA management pulled the plug in the middle of the show, creating one of the biggest broadcasting blunders in the history of the Voice of America.
No Chinese pressure?
Sasha Gong, a journalist with a Ph.D. from Harvard University, has been on administrative leave from her job as Chief of Mandarin Service for Voice of America for several months. She writes here solely in her own personal capacity and not on behalf of Voice of America.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.