Pro-democracy forces are locked in a cat-and-mouse game with the Chinese government, playing out on the airwaves, the internet and across the globe.
For more than four months, Hong Kong has been in the grips of a civil crisis. Protestors have taken to the streets to challenge the Hong Kong government’s growing acquiescence to Beijing while Chinese government forces and their allies have used militias to attack protestors and electronic tools to disrupt their communications. But media censorship means that few mainland Chinese know what’s going on.
A Silicon Valley-based organization has found a way to get information into China and out to Chinese speakers around the world: shortwave radio.
“Shortwave broadcast is kinda like a grey area," said Sean Lin, one of the co-founders of the Sound of Hope radio network. "There’s no law that says you cannot do it. It depends on if governments want to keep [a particular radio station] going or shut it down based on Beiging’s pressure,”
Shortwave radio has been used for decades to broadcast news, information, political messages, and disinformation. During World War II, the Germans and the British both used radio waves between 3–30 MHz (10 to 100 metres) to try to persuade listeners around the world.
Sound of Hope, co-founded by Lin and Allen Zeng in 2004, looked to take the same technology and broadcast messages into China. Zeng originally set up the station to broadcast to the Chinese language population in Silicon Valley. It was his response to a dearth of Chinese-language news coverage that wasn’t heavily influenced by the Chinese government. “You would expect them [Chinese language news and media in the United States] to have some basic media decency and do their job. They don’t. They all have family in China. They need to go back to China. They need to do business in China,” said Zeng.
Soon, the Sound of Hope began to broadcast into mainland China itself. Both Zeng and Lin identify as members of the Falun Gong movement, a traditional Chinese religious movement heavily persecuted by the Chinese government. The station does carry religious programing, but they say it’s primarily for reportage and commentary about events in China, and of relevance to the Chinese diaspora.
Shortwave (really, AM) radio can be a powerful tool, but it can be drowned out by a more powerful signal. Five years after the radio effort launched, the Chinese government’s jammers had essentially squelched the broadcast.
“We were desperate,” because of the jamming, said Lin. “Then we had an engineer in Taiwan who came up with a strategy.”
The station now uses more than 100 radio antennas located in countries all around China, such as Thailand and Taiwan, which trade the signal — in effect, playing a game of keepaway with the station’s broadcasting. It’s a strategy they still employ to get their show to 60 percent of the Chinese mainland, including Hong Kong. They have about a 30-person reporting team, who operate under pen names all around the world. It’s a mix of reporting about China and world events, through an analytical lens that’s much more critical of the Chinese government than the government would allow, as well as some original reporting on events within China itself.
“We rely on a reporter who calls into China to dig up news,” said Lin. Much of their exclusive Chinese coverage is the sort of thing that a local television investigative news team might cover, “petitioners who petition the central government. A lot of the times their case is not handled by the authorities, so they will find another way to seek help, seek a way to voice how their house is being taken down by local authorities, or corruption cases, things like that.”
Lin and Zeng say that they would like to do more reporting on everything from the Hong Kong protests to the plight of the almost three million Muslims imprisoned in the sprawling re-education camps of Xinjiang. Sound of Hope gets no help from the U.S. government, a reluctance that Zeng and Lin attribute to pressure from Beijing. Instead, they rely on donations, mostly from Silicon Valley, and an army of volunteers.
But working with the network carries risks, even outside of China. Last November, Thailand authorities acceded to a Chinese request to arrest a Taiwanese man named Chiang Yung-hsin for setting up an antenna for Sound of Hope.
“Many prisoners of conscious escape from China and escape to Thailand, so of course the Chinese government have their own control agents,” Lin said.
The Chinese government works both inside and outside China to shape the global perception of its actions and to restrict the ability of Chinese people within the country’s borders from accessing information. They run dozens of radio stations, including in places like Washington, D.C., to carry the government-approved narrative. They manage a vast—but unremarked upon—social media presence on popular platforms like Instagram.
On the ground, where Hong Kong protestors had been using the messaging service Telegram to organize, forces within China launch massive DDOS attacks to disrupt the service.
IP addresses coming mostly from China. Historically, all state actor-sized DDoS (200-400 Gb/s of junk) we experienced coincided in time with protests in Hong Kong (coordinated on @telegram). This case was not an exception.— Pavel Durov (@durov) June 12, 2019
“We need to resolve two problems in getting uncensored information to China,” said Zeng. One is getting around attempts to stifle radio broadcast. The other is thwarting China’s attempts to stifle the free flow of information over the Internet, via a massive government effort begun in 1998 to route all traffic through government controls to better suffocate anti-government messaging, dubbed the Golden Shield Project or, more popularly, the Great Firewall.
The founders of Song of Hope want to reach more Chinese via the Internet, not just shortwave broadcasts. They rely on a virtual private network service called Ultrasurf to help Chinese access their content. But, says Zeng, as the technical tactics of the state evolve, so services like Ultrasurf and Song of Hope are pressured to keep up.
The question for pro-democracy media in China and beyond is whether they can persist in the face of government efforts that show no sign of stopping.