A Commercial for China

People visit the Confucius Temple to celebrate the Lantern Festival in Nanjing, in eastern China's Jiangsu province, in February 2014. (AP Photo)
People visit the Confucius Temple to celebrate the Lantern Festival in Nanjing, in eastern China's Jiangsu province, in February 2014. (AP Photo)
People visit the Confucius Temple to celebrate the Lantern Festival in Nanjing, in eastern China’s Jiangsu province, in February 2014. (AP Photo)

Ratings matter to commercial radio and television because the size of the audience determines the price of sponsors’ airtime. But should they also matter to government-backed foreign broadcasts, which do not sell ads? In Washington, the Arabic-language TV network Al-Hurra and its sister radio channel, Sawa, receive funding from the United States Congress to present America to the Arab world. They publish an annual performance review which quantifies success largely in terms of “audience weekly reach,” now estimated at 35.5 million. Their data comes from corporate research by the Gallup Organization and analysis from firms such as Nielsen, which also tracks Sunday Night Football and how many Americans play video games.

These survey companies would presumably be unimpressed by a forty-five-minute documentary about the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius which aired late last year on the Arabic service of Chinese Radio International. Perhaps five thousand listeners tuned in online via the CRI Web site, alongside however many shortwave radio enthusiasts picked up the aerial signal from its source in Albania. The program featured a synthesized keyboard soundtrack, a lean script, interviews with Chinese language teachers in two Arab countries, and musical interludes by a Beijing rapper. The meaning of the rap was not translated from Chinese. Hardly anything was actually said about Confucius.

But to evaluate the CRI program in Nielsen-like terms would be missing the point. The Chinese government has developed an approach to cultural outreach in the Arab world whereby a program’s ratings matter far less than who in particular is listening. Niche content on radio and television supports a broader effort to attract a modest number of Arabs in countries of high strategic concern, who go on to serve Beijing as assets and emissaries to the media as well as the society at large. With their help, China strives to reach a vast audience via the region’s indigenous broadcasts, with which no foreign outfit can compete. This exposure, in turn, supports a ground campaign of “soft power” to tweak the region’s cultural fabric in favor of Chinese interests.

On December 21, China’s media outreach to the Middle East achieved an unprecedented coup with the debut of a forty-part Chinese TV comedy-drama, overdubbed into Egyptian Arabic, on Egypt’s government-controlled Channel 2—which broadcasts free-to-air nationwide. “Happy Life” (Hayat Sa’ida) is the story of a Beijing doctor with humble village roots in love with an upper-class woman whose parents disapprove of him. The decision to expose Egyptians to the show was the outcome of a protocol signed by the Chinese government and the Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU), a division of Egypt’s Information Ministry, for the express purpose of using mass media to prepare the population for a stronger alliance between the two states. China gave ERTU the rights to the program for free and paid for the translation and overdubbing. Egyptian Information Minister Duraya Sharaf Al-Din, toasting the program’s premier during a visit to the Chinese embassy in Cairo, told Chinese radio that her government wants the series to instill an emotional connection with China that will popularize political and economic ties. “Whereas the media used to merely report on politics and events,” she mused, “now it can make them.”

The important achievement “Happy Life” represents for Beijing was years in the making—preceded by a long string of small-time communications gains in Arab countries, none of which would appear to count for much when viewed on its own. Examine a few of them together, however, and one can perceive an intricate style of thinking and planning which bespeaks a modern superpower rooted in ancient traditions trying to engage another traditional society mired in strife. Numerous Western experts in the field of “soft power”—notably the originator of the term himself, Harvard University professor Joseph Nye, have dismissed Chinese public diplomacy worldwide as ineffectual. And, to be sure, according to a July 2013 Pew Global Attitudes survey, China has suffered in popularity among Arab publics in recent years. But a closer look at the rising power’s Middle East efforts indicates that pronouncements of its failure to win Arab hearts and minds are premature—and that in any case, there are important lessons to be drawn from the Chinese experience.

Confucius in Cairo and Casablanca

The forty-five-minute documentary about Confucius aired in September 2013 on Arabic CRI’s weekly news magazine, Panorama. Four months later, it still enjoys a half-life, reaching new listeners on social media via its permalink. In silk-smooth Arabic with a Chinese lilt, a female announcer says the philosopher was born 2,564 years ago and has influenced China and its people ever since. Then the narration abruptly shifts: “Recent years have seen the establishment of Confucius Institutes,” she reports, “which spread the ancient Confucian ideas and philosophy all over the world, and have become beacons for the dissemination of Chinese culture.”

The rest of the show profiles not Confucius the man, but Confucius the Institute, a network of government-backed educational facilities that promote learning and instruction in Chinese, as well as cultural study and exchange programs. Though nearly every Arab country has a chapter, the documentary is chiefly concerned with those in post-revolutionary Egypt and Tunisia. We hear from Muhammad Ali Al-Zayyat, who heads the branch at Suez Canal University in Cairo. He explains that while some Egyptian students enroll for love of Chinese, a larger contingent “are striving to find better job opportunities through the many factories and companies [in Egypt] that need workers who speak the language.”

Egypt and China are both great civilizations, Zayyat says, and Confucian teachings suit Egypt well. He recalls that his late father felt modern Egypt might have grown into the powerhouse China is today, but for the pressures it faced from foreign powers. Like his father, Zayyat believes that Egypt should “distance itself from the West, and its better partner is China . . . because our relationship is based on an exchange of benefits, rather than all the benefits going to one side.” His plans for the future include bringing a pilot program about China to Egyptian schools—which will be a step, he hopes, toward introducing the study of Chinese as a second language year-round.

Panorama pauses for a Chinese hip-hop break, after which one of Zayyat’s counterparts at the Confucius Institute in the Tunisian town of Sfax joins the conversation. She echoes his personal and political sentiments about China, and recalls her happy years as a student in Beijing. So does the show’s final guest, an Egyptian student who more recently returned from the Chinese capital. All these voices seem to hint that much awaits the Arab listener who would like to serve as a bridge to China.

In sum, the show falls outside the news cycle and has little entertainment value—but for the narrow purpose of inducing Egyptian and Tunisian youth to enroll in their local Confucius Institute, it strikes precisely the right chords. Young listeners in an unstable country with high unemployment hear that they can study Chinese for free and dramatically boost their job prospects. The show’s guests manage to preempt defensive reactions from the kind of nationalist mentality that would bristle at such an overture from a foreign power: Listeners are assured that Egypt too is a great civilization, and only lags behind China due to its history of exploitation by the West. A step toward China is a step toward liberation and progress. Beijing comes across as a refreshingly hospitable destination for study abroad, and a place that honors its guests and rejects anti-Arab stereotypes that are widespread in Europe and the United States. Some listeners of modest means probably begin to wonder whether the educational exchanges are funded by the hosts. For an answer, they’ll have to visit the Institute in person.

The philosopher Confucius, for his part, is mentioned numerous times, his name fulsomely enunciated over a placid musical backdrop—yet the substance of his life and work remains vague. He appears to serve the broadcast as a metaphor, enigmatic by design: He is China’s secret recipe, the elixir Arabs need to reclaim their ancient glory. At one point the announcer adds that Confucius “has been nicknamed ‘the prophet of China.’”

Who listens to such a broadcast? Unlike America’s Sawa or the BBC from London, CRI Arabic is unavailable on local radio in the region (with the exception of what appears to be a pilot project on FM radio in the sparsely populated North African republic of Mauritania). Nor does it figure prominently among Arabic stations hyped online. One finds it advertised in venues where Arabs already curious about China are likely to go. For example, the Web site of the Chinese embassy in Cairo features a link on its home page, while in person, the embassy’s cultural attaché encourages young people he meets to tune in. Some Confucius Institute chapters also disseminate links to prospective students as a kind of audio brochure.

Another means of dissemination enlists Arab nationals to do the work, and become long-term assets to Beijing along the way: so-called “listener appreciation societies.” These are young people’s social clubs, which appear to form spontaneously at first but grow thanks to concerted support from China. Witness the “Friends of Chinese Radio International Club” in Khouribga, a small working-class town in central Morocco that happens to be a hub of the country’s phosphate industry, a major source of phosphate imports for China.

According to its website, the club was founded by a local Moroccan Tae Kwon Do enthusiast who discovered CRI online and began participating in its on-air trivia competitions. CRI awarded him a visit to Sichuan province, where he joined other CRI fans from Turkey, Senegal, Cambodia, Hungary and elsewhere—also founders of listener appreciation societies in their countries. Each guest was paired off with someone identifying as a staffer from the network who served as a full-time translator and guide. “We lunched and supped at the most beautiful restaurants in China, as if we were kings,” writes the Moroccan participant in his 4,400-word account of the visit. “I can hardly describe my shyness in front of the venerable female broadcaster who accompanied me throughout the trip . . . who never tired or got bored from translating every word.” She treated him “with the tenderness of a mother,” he says, and refers to the CRI staff as his “dearest family.”

The Friends of Chinese Radio International Club operates with permission from the Moroccan Interior Ministry to provide CRI with “listener reports,” cooperate with the Chinese embassy in its outreach efforts in Morocco, and broker “cooperation agreements” between Moroccan institutions and their Chinese counterparts. For the club’s members, the agreement in Cairo that led to the airing of the forty-part Chinese drama on Egyptian television is an example of something to aspire to. The Khouribga club made a stride in this direction in October 2013 with the opening of a week-long Chinese film festival in town.

All these projects, large and small, are manifestations of Chinese “soft power”—that is, the ability to attract and co-opt, rather than coerce. Parallel efforts by the United States over the years have sometimes encountered extreme hostility, including attacks on American libraries and English teaching facilities in Egypt, Lebanon, Sudan, Kuwait and Jordan. Some personnel who staff the American initiatives have endured suspicions or charges of espionage, quite unlike their Chinese counterparts. To gauge the contrast, just imagine the backlash that would await an Arab youth group in Baghdad or Gaza calling itself the “Friends of American International Broadcasting Club,” pledging to submit “listener reports” to the Broadcasting Board of Governors in Washington, and collaborating with the American embassy to establish “cooperation agreements” with the population. The harsh treatment these young people would face stems largely from America’s baggage in the Middle East following years of policies unpopular with Arab publics. China, by contrast, has never occupied an Arab country and does not face accusations of siding with Israel against the Palestinians.

That said, China has also adopted policies that are deeply disliked in much of the region today, and has paid a price in public esteem: The country poured billions in oil contracts into Libya under Gaddafi and refused to support the NATO-led campaign to oust him, consequently finding itself shunned by the post-Gaddafi transitional government and most of the Libyan population. Syria’s embattled Sunni majority has come to loathe China for standing by the regime of Bashar Al-Assad amid the bloody, ongoing war. There are economic grievances against China, too: Arab private-sector elites in Egypt, for example, fault their Chinese partners for repatriating so much of the profit from ventures on their soil that “the amount of money that sticks with the local economy is not a win–win,” says Jon Alterman, Middle East program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Last September, China experienced the first terrorist attack ever perpetrated against one of its embassies in the Middle East—a mortar strike in Damascus in retaliation for Beijing’s backing of Assad.

Yet the 2013 Pew Global Attitudes survey, while noting an overall decline in China’s popularity, also reports that China remains considerably more popular than the United States in the region, and that young Arabs tend to like the country more than their parents do. The Asian power’s long-running public diplomacy efforts are only now beginning to bear fruit, as evidenced by the unprecedented TV deal with Egypt’s government. As China’s footprint grows in the Middle East, will regard for the country fall to American levels? The deeper one probes into the country’s communications approach, the more vulnerable it appears to the same types of charges Americans have long faced. On the other hand, its unique features have distinct advantages in the region today which might just help China avoid a similar fate.

Two kinds of intelligence?

Like American public diplomacy efforts in the Arab world, the Confucius Institute—that franchise of Chinese educational facilities which was promoted in the Arabic CRI broadcast—also encounters opposition in some countries where it maintains a presence. The flack tends to come not from developing countries, but from the world’s wealthier democratic states. The harshest and least substantiated charge against the Institute is that it serves as a vehicle for military and industrial espionage, as well as the monitoring of Chinese students overseas. The Canadian intelligence services acknowledge having investigated the organization’s branches on their soil. Public critiques in the United States have noted personnel overlap between some US-based chapters and the leadership of Huawei, a Chinese telecommunications company alleged to have spied on its American competitors.

A more broadly shared objection is that the Institute stifles academic freedom in universities where it establishes a branch: Some cash-strapped colleges relying on it for language instruction have discouraged campus activism against human rights abuses in China and have cancelled a visit by the Dalai Lama, for example, for fear that the Institute would shut its doors in protest. Organized opposition at the University of Chicago and University of Melbourne, as well as numerous colleges in Europe and Asia, have called for ousting the group altogether. Among their arguments, they have asserted that the Institute is effectively an arm of the Chinese Communist Party: Though the group presents itself in Europe and the Americas as the Chinese equivalent of Germany’s Goethe Institute or the British Council, the latter organizations enjoy a political firewall from their government backers, whereas Confucius Institutes have no such mandate. On the contrary, as Li Changchun, a senior member of China’s Politburo Standing Committee, told The Economist, the organization is construed by Beijing as “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up.” Numerous Confucius Institute language learners in the West have described teachers as using their platform to advance—if gently—the Chinese government position on its conflict with Taiwan, the Falun Gong opposition group, the Tiananmen Square massacre, and Tibetan independence activists.

The same accusations would presumably apply no less to Confucius Institutes in poor countries such as Egypt, where universities are even more hard-pressed financially and thus inherently more beholden to foreign donors. But scour the Egyptian media for any criticism of the organization at all—even a disparaging acknowledgment of Western allegations—and one comes away empty-handed. One finds instead a fawning thirty-minute guided tour of the Institute branch at Suez Canal University which aired on an Al-Jazeera channel last May; a twenty-minute interview with an Egyptian Sinophile who heads a branch in Dubai, broadcast on the Egyptian government network Al-Misriya; and a deluge of news releases, printed verbatim in the Egyptian press, about the growing number of Egyptians proficient in Chinese thanks to the Institute’s work.

This remarkable record appears to stem from a combination of factors, of which some are irreplicable by rival powers while others bear appropriation. In the former category, Western states are history’s children from a Middle Eastern perspective, centuries away from earning the respect accorded an ancient civilization such as China. It’s too late, moreover, to earn a mention in the collected sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. (“Seek knowledge even unto China,” he told his followers.) A Moroccan radio lover’s feeling of devotion to the people of Sichuan province is not merely the result of a government program designed to forge such a bond; it is, perhaps, the natural outcome of an interaction between members of two traditional societies. These commonalities are what make the protagonist in the Chinese TV drama “Happy Life” instantly recognizable to millions of urban Egyptians, also the product of rural migration, who remember the trauma of entering a globalized society overnight. For years to come in Arab countries, China will enjoy the admired status of a global superpower with one foot in the developing world.

Its media approach, dismissed by American soft-power experts, is also old fashioned. It could even be summed up by a term from medieval Arabian horseback warfare: Al-Karr wa ‘l-Farr (“advance and retreat”). In Washington’s quest for high Gallup ratings, it took on the entire region at once—a round-the-clock phalanx of public diplomacy spanning 3,200 miles of Arab airwaves—sustaining objections en masse and only then adjusting its strategy, in broad daylight, successive times. China sneaks up on tiny audiences, racks up small victories, and recruits new assets from the field. When it experiments, the stakes are low; when it wages an ambitious campaign, the strategy is pre-tested. And this is an approach any competitor can use. It bears emulation in North Africa and the Middle East in particular, because the region’s culture and politics is so diverse, the audience is so fragmented, and the agenda of a foreign power from one place to another simply cannot be summed up by a single message.

As for China’s impressive avoidance of bad press—at least so far—it derives from the fact that three years after the onset of revolution in the Arab world, most of the region’s major media outlets still either fall directly under state control or reliably defer to state interests. China assures Arab governments that it has no designs on their political systems—and where media is concerned, it seeks to partner with indigenous broadcasts rather than compete with them. In this way, it has managed to fend off orders from on high to slander its institutions or aspirations. An Arab establishment will tolerate a Chinese ground campaign on its soil, whether to cultivate boosters in a Moroccan phosphate hub or build a pro-Beijing beachhead in a Cairo university, because it knows that the end goals are limited.

The idea of providing similar assurances to an Arab state—even an ally—may discomfit many Americans, given the country’s tradition of exporting democracy and habit of thinking about media ventures through the prism of a “ratings game.” But present circumstances in the region impel new ways to apply American values to its policies. At a time when extremist transnational movements make strides toward weakening states and eroding their borders, it is right to help prevent them from succeeding—and focus on supporting the institutions of a government which Washington regards as an ally. Through partnership in the realm of media, moreover, any power—whether the United States or another country—can win a seat at the table, a chance to negotiate over how it is treated in the media, and for that matter, the opportunity to negotiate over treatments of its rivals.

This article was originally published in The Majalla.

South Koreans on Arab Airwaves

The N Seoul Tower is seen next to a traditional bower on the top of Nam mountain in Seoul on February 22, 2010. The tower was established as a Korea's first total electric wave tower to send TV and radio broadcasts in Seoul metropolitan area in 1969. AFP PHOTO/JUNG YEON-JE (Photo credit should read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)
The N Seoul Tower is seen next to a traditional bower on the top of Nam mountain in Seoul on February 22, 2010. The tower was established as a Korea's first total electric wave tower to send TV and radio broadcasts in Seoul metropolitan area in 1969. (AFP PHOTO/JUNG YEON-JE)
The N Seoul Tower is seen next to a traditional bower on the top of Nam mountain in Seoul on February 22, 2010. The tower was established as a Korea’s first total electric wave tower to send TV and radio broadcasts in Seoul metropolitan area in 1969. (AFP PHOTO/JUNG YEON-JE)

As a child at home in the United States I used to listen to broadcasts from faraway places via shortwave radio, the transmission typically uneven and full of static. Today those distant voices come in clear as a bell, via streaming audio on any smartphone. Late the other night I was surfing Arabic radio stations, from Baghdad to Algiers, and by chance heard two women speaking the language impeccably—but with a peculiar accent.

“Dear listeners,” one of them asked, “how did you spend your day?”

“Every new day gives us new hopes and aspirations,” said the other.

I listened awhile, and eventually heard a haunting oriental melody and a man’s voice say, “From the Korean capital Seoul, we meet again over the airwaves—coming together in love, in goodness and in hope.”

It turned out to be the Arabic service of the South Korean government’s Korean Broadcasting System (KBS). Top-of-the-hour news detailed the country’s military preparations to face its saber-rattling neighbor to the north and a visit to Europe by the South Korean president. It was read by an Egyptian man, but it was followed by a business report from another man, again with a Korean accent. “[South] Korean exports exceeded 50 billion US dollars for the month of October,” he said, “a new record for a country that exported only 19 million dollars a year following its independence from Japan.” Following station identification, the Korean ladies returned and recounted how growing numbers of Emiratis and Egyptians had taken proficiency exams in the Korean language. “Ma sha’ Allah!,” one said. “Oh my goodness! And so continues the advance toward the furthering of relations and friendship between Koreans and Arabs, which will increase our mutual cooperation and understanding of one another, God willing.” The show went on to cover the latest in Korean cinema and music and to teach phrases in the Korean language. As the clock struck the hour, the show looped back to the beginning and repeated—just one hour of new content per day.

I grew curious: what exactly are South Koreans hoping to accomplish by broadcasting to the Arab world?

The following morning, I visited Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who has studied the expanding Asian footprint in North Africa and the Middle East. “South Korea sees the Arab world as an important market,” he explained, “for manufactured goods, for construction—and they get virtually all their oil from the Middle East.” He added that the government had a contract to build nuclear reactors in Abu Dhabi, and a detachment of military personnel were helping train the Emirati special forces.

“I think South Korea sees itself coming into the commercial role that the US has traditionally occupied, and creating some reciprocity between the South Korea’s thirst for oil and the South Korean ability to manufacture,” he said, adding, “but one of their challenges is that nobody has heard of Korea. I mean, people have heard of China; it has ancient relations with the Middle East. People have heard of Japan, which has very longstanding relations with a lot of countries. No word comes to mind when people think about Korea, and they’re trying to invest that idea with something.”

Apparently, this is where the Korean Broadcasting System in Arabic comes in. It is a tool for what Americans call public diplomacy—that is, a proactive effort to influence the foreign public towards supporting a country’s foreign policies. The US invests hundreds of millions of dollars annually in its own public diplomacy outreach to the Arab world, including the nonstop broadcast Radio Sawa airing on local FM radio across North Africa and the Middle East. Sawa competes for Arab attention with rival broadcasts from China, Russia, Iran and every country in Western Europe, as well as transnational movements ranging from the Muslim Brotherhood to the Catholic Church. Viewed together, such efforts amount to a multibillion-dollar industry—but whether the broadcasters are achieving their political objectives is unclear.

Philip Seib, a professor of Journalism, Public Diplomacy and International Relations at the University of Southern California, has his doubts. “Everybody in the world, just about now, is broadcasting in Arabic,” he told me, “but not every Arab is listening to them. Even the BBC these days is having trouble getting an audience in the Arab world, and it’s got an established reputation. What I know from spending time in the Arab world is that a lot of these foreign broadcasters have spent a lot of money to reach just a handful of people.”

It is difficult to gauge how much money foreign powers are spending or determine their ratings in the region. Audience research in the Arab world is still at a junior stage, uneven in coverage and sometimes unreliable. But one useful indicator, at least as far as younger listeners is concerned, is the number of Twitter followers a given radio network has. Relative to indigenous Arab broadcasts, the numbers tend to be quite low. Out of curiosity, I checked KBS Arabic’s Twitter account and compared it with that of America’s Radio Sawa—and discovered that the little network is punching high above its weight: whereas 24-hour-a-day Sawa, with an annual budget in excess of 22 million dollars, has won 60,000 Twitter followers, South Korea’s Arabic service, with only three full-time employees and one hour of programming daily, has managed to exceed 10,000.

Thus the network may be judged a success within the spectrum of foreign Arabic broadcasts—and the question becomes, what’s South Korea’s secret? To learn more, I called KBS headquarters in the capital, Seoul, and spoke with Bae Jung-ok, director of the Arabic section, who goes by the name Lu’Lu’a when on the air. She greeted me warmly. “Whenever I host a program or an interview, I always wonder whether anybody out there hears the reflections of my heart,” she said. “And ma sha’ Allah, you are in Washington and you heard me. Wow. It’s a dream come true.”

I asked her how she viewed the nature of her work. “They call us civil ambassadors,” she explained. “We try as much as we can to be bridges between the two cultures. That’s how we feel about what we do, and our Arab guests see us that way too. There’s a lot in common between Arab and Korean cultures. For example, young people respect the elderly. Many of the same oriental values are present in both cultures. I think this makes it a lot easier to narrow the distance between us.” KBS Arabic was no spring chicken, Bae said.

It has been on air since September 1975, not long after the October 1973 Arab oil embargo that was launched in response to American support for Israel during the October 6 war. The embargo caused a spike in oil prices and a global recession—and drove home the message that foreign powers ignore Arab feelings at their peril.

“In the early 1970s,” Bae said, “there was the energy crisis, and there were no Arab affairs specialists in Korea. So the government focused on developing Arabic-language expertise. Over time, we realized that we needed as well to foster cultural, academic and social cooperation—and one can’t get close to other countries for economic motivations alone.”

Thirty-eight years later, the network still operates on a shoestring budget, with twenty part-time freelancers helping out the full-time staff—and its audience has grown vastly larger. Having barely any internal bureaucracy to navigate appears to be a sort of a blessing for the KBS Arabic staff, in that the group keeps nimble and directly engaged with listeners and enjoys the freedom to tweak the programming based on what appears to be working. Bae believes that her success in growing the audience has been due largely to the intensely personal relationship she fosters with listeners.

“Ordinary listeners from, say, Algeria, would send us a listeners’ report,” she explained. “That is, they would tell us how they came to hear us, and give feedback, both positive and negative. Eventually, in time they also started talking about personal matters. For example, ‘Today’s my birthday,’ or, ‘My daughter got married,’ or, ‘My wife had a baby’—and we would begin to respond to them on the show.

“One day, a listener let us know in advance that on such-and-such a day he was going to get married. At that time I was hosting a music segment. And so, of course, I congratulated him during the show and dedicated a song to the happy couple. He was very happy, and he recorded it and played it at the wedding. Such exchanges of emotions can be very powerful.”

The KBS approach may work out fine for a relatively small country new to the Middle East which is trying to make a good first impression on Arabs. But its recipe for success may be barely relevant to a superpower like the US, which is well known, ubiquitous, not entirely well liked, and struggling to defend sweeping policies and vast interests. For that matter, neither is KBS Arabic even trying to become a source of news and information about the world beyond the Korean peninsula.

Nonetheless, there is at least one glaring lesson the world’s great powers can draw from KBS—and that is the benefits of having Arabs share the microphone with those native citizens of the country whose impeccable Arabic speaks volumes about their devotion to understanding and relating to Arab societies. At this time, there are no American-born broadcasters on the US-backed Radio Sawa or, for that matter, Britons on BBC Arabic. (By contrast, the Chinese broadcast in Arabic does include Chinese broadcasters, who narrate programs with a superior level of fluency and diction.)

“When the Arabic section of KBS got started,” Bae recalled, “we had only Korean graduates in Arabic studies from the university to use as broadcasters. Over time, their Arabic got better and better. But in the twenty-first century, Arabs have started gushing into Korea. Many of them live here now, and we have begun to mix the two voices on our programming—Arabs and Koreans together. And I think the audience response has been better as a result. They always tell us, ‘You’re different from the other foreign networks. Usually they just use Arab broadcasters, whereas you have your own citizens working side by side with Arabs.’ Maybe this is our advantage.”

This article was originally published in The Majalla.

Listen to Joseph Braude’s English-language podcast documentary, “Koreans on Arab Airwaves,” here. To hear the complete interview in Arabic with Bae Jung-ok, director of the Korean Broadcasting System’s Arabic section, click here.