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2011/03/23 / Horace

An End and also A New Beginning – About the Closure of the BBC’s Mandarin Service

On Mar. 25th, 2011, at GMT 1530 and Beijing Time 2330, the BBC’s Mandarin Service which has been on air for 70 years will accomplish its mission and recede into our memories. In the past 70 years, as one of the best broadcasters to China, the BBC’s Mandarin Service has been many people’s important source of information for decades and has played its role in many crucial historic moments.

During the Cold War when the world was split into capitalism and communism, short-wave was one of the most effective methods of exerting soft power. Therefore, the Cold War was also the golden days of short-wave broadcast. At that time, a letter to the Bush House alone could get you the broadcast schedule and frequencies, money for your contribution articles, and even free English-learning materials and news magazines. The VOA and the Voice of Russia were also as generous.

However, with the end of the Cold War and the ease of global tension, short-wave radio has also seen a steep fall. There used to be about 60 languages in the BBC’s language services, but now there are only 32 and are going to be only 27. The channels of the BBG of the United States, such as the Voice of America and the Radio Free Europe, have also seen cuts in their funding. Moreover, with the development of communication technology, short-wave radio is no longer the only way to learn current affairs beyond the border. For example, in China, there are fewer and fewer people listening to the radio, there are more and more people turning to cable TV and the Internet, and there are more and more English-speaking Chinese, hence, short-wave radio towards China can be regarded as a very expensive but very ineffective and unpopular stuff. Short-wave radio, I am afraid to say, will decline and even disappear perhaps not only in China but also all over the planet.

So, it is understandable and wise that the BBC stops its Mandarin Short-wave Service.

However, the cut of the BBC’s Short-wave Mandarin Service does not mean the disappearance of the BBC’s Chinese Service. Conversely, the BBC will make more efforts in BBCChinese.com and BBCUKChina.com, the two websites of the BBC’s Chinese Service. If you log on BBCUKChina.com, for example, you can see the growing variety and attraction of its contents.

The rise of the Internet has triggered a new media revolution. We can see more and more newspapers, TV stations and radio stations providing online contents, making our information more various, more instant and more accessible. FM Radio, TV and newspapers are all inferior to the Internet, let alone the Short-wave radio which has to travel across mountains and oceans to get to its audience. Enhancing online interactions, adjusting contents due to netizens’ demands, making better use of Social Network Sites like Facebook and Twitter, consolidating its position as an ‘opinion leader’, and offering better interpretations about news events should be what the BBC Chinese Service should do in the future, and such would also be what other broadcasters towards China should do.

Short-wave broadcast is part of the public diplomacy campaign. With the evolution of time, How to perform public diplomacy has also evolved. The BBC’s Chinese Service may not be able to fully perform such a task any more. In the new fiscal year, despite the huge cuts on the BBC World Service, there is a rise on the public diplomacy expense of the British government. The contrast means that the British government is trying to promote its values and policies with a more modern and attractive approach. Maybe, a lecture held by the British Council, a drama from the BBC, a single from Adele or a promotional campaign for the 2012 London Olympics has psychologically transferred us from people who live according to Beijing Time to those who live according to the GMT.

To sum up, the end to the BBC’s Mandarin Short-wave Service means the end of the old approach of public diplomacy, but also means the beginning of a new mindset and a new approach, not only in the United Kingdom but also in the world.

The end of the BBC’s Mandarin Short-wave Service also reminds Chinese soft power promoters of the current situation and the trend of media revolution. A monotone of only traditional medias will no longer help China to make its voice heard. Such an approach may even work against our global promotion campaign. What kind of new approach shall we come up with? It is a question every media profession should think about.

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