Chinese radio broadcaster taps front men in Finland and Australia

BEIJING (Reuters) - Zhao Yinong calls China Radio International “a very big client” of his European media group.

According to Zhao, the state-owned Chinese international broadcaster pays his company, GBTimes, “several million euros” each year to produce radio shows for a local audience. That’s a little over half of GBTimes’ annual revenue.

Zhao, whose media company is based in Finland, spearheads an operation that broadcasts China-friendly programming in Europe on behalf of China Radio International (CRI). But CRI is more than a client of Zhao: A CRI subsidiary owns a 60 percent stake in GBTimes, according to corporate filings.

Asked why China is operating abroad through private companies, Zhao said the initial reason was a lack of talent, funding and knowledge of the overseas media market.

“As China grows and gets stronger,” he said he believed it would expand its media reach “overseas on its own.”

Zhao, who spoke with Reuters in an interview last month in Beijing, said there was no difference between his operation and the U.S.-government-funded Voice of America (VOA).

When a reporter said that VOA is transparent about its government links, Zhao replied: “We’ve never hidden ourselves. There’s nothing to hide.”

According to Zhao, GBTimes runs a network of 14 radio stations from Finland to Hungary to Italy. A Reuters review of corporate filings and interviews with station employees revealed nine stations in which GBTimes either has an ownership stake or to which it provides content.

Klasszik Radio in Hungary, which is part of the GBTimes stable, says on its Facebook page that its mission is to “talk about the pros and cons of the Asian giant, its rich culture, funny habits and the fact that they are not as alien to us as we might think.”

All the radio stations in the GBTimes network adhere to regulatory requirements in the countries in which they operate, Zhao said.

Zhao’s counterpart in the Asia-Pacific region is Tommy Jiang, who is in partnership with CRI through a Melbourne-based media company. The 2009 launch of Jiang’s Canberra FM 88 station was deemed significant enough by Beijing that China’s ambassador to Australia and CRI’s president attended.

“China Radio International is now on the air in the Australian capital of Canberra,” China’s state-run CCTV reported on its website at the time.

English-language radio stations in Perth, Canberra and Auckland broadcast China-friendly programming similar to that being aired in the United States, where CRI has a partnership with Los Angeles-based businessman James Su. A station in Thailand, though, broadcasts mainly Thai pop songs.

In Europe, a number of stations broadcast mainly music, but some also run programs on Chinese culture and social trends, with names like “Colorful East” and “Pop Rock Dragon.”

“This is about selling China’s story to the world,” said Jichang Lulu, an independent researcher on China who has written about GBTimes. “The explicit intention is to portray the content as coming from an independent party, while in fact broadcasting the views of the Chinese government.”

In Asia, some of the employees at stations in Jiang’s stable have received training from CRI. An employee at Capital FM 92.4 in Kathmandu, Nepal, told Reuters that staffers have worked at CRI’s official Nepali language service in Beijing.

Zhao said he’d like more cooperation with his counterparts in the United States and Asia-Pacific. Jiang declined to be interviewed.

Edited by Peter Hirschberg