How Dissidents Are Using Shortwave Radio to Broadcast News Into China

A policeman uses a speakerphone to ask residents and protesters to disperse during a protest at Sham Shui Po district in Hong Kong, Aug. 7.

A policeman uses a speakerphone to ask residents and protesters to disperse during a protest at Sham Shui Po district in Hong Kong, Aug. 7. Vincent Thian/AP

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 Beijing'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 meters) 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 programming, 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. 


“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.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.