Washington. -- Consider an idea whose time may be here: Radio Free China. It could play a key role in finishing up the great unfinished business of our time.
Legislation has been introduced. Senate co-sponsors include, imagine this, liberal Joe Biden and conservative Jesse Helms. One commission is already studying the idea, a second is likely.
The concept has been kicking around for decades. It involves ''surrogate radio.''
America does two kinds of international radio broadcasting. Our national service, Voice of America, broadcasts globally in 44 languages. VOA has been an authentic, often excellent, ''voice of America.'' Its editorials express government views. Its professional journalists do objective news and interesting features, usually keyed to American and global situations. In a complex way, VOA is part of the State Department.
Surrogate radio is different. It was designed to broadcast to certain ''denied'' populations. These are peoples whose governments tried to keep them in the dark, especially about what is going on in their own tortured countries. America's principal surrogate services are Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, started in the early 1950s. The government funds ''the Radios," but through an independent board of citizen directors. (I was a member of that board; I am now a member of the extant study commission.)
Radio Free Europe is beamed to Eastern Europe in nine languages. Radio Liberty broadcasts to the Soviet Union in 13 languages. A newer surrogate, Radio Marti, broadcasts to Cuba.
The Radios tried to produce what freedom of expression would yield if a repressed nation had free expression. As they evolved, the stations served as local newspapers, town meetings, journals of opinion, religious mentors, chroniclers of culture and global news magazines. In tough places and tough times, oppressed peoples listened, at their peril, through jamming, and learned the flame was alive, and that America cared.
Surrogate radio is not cheap. It takes intensive research to dig out news from a closed society. Radio Free Europe's Romanian service employs somewhat more staff than the Voice of America's China service. Because many programmers are emigres who believe passionately in national freedom, costly oversight is needed to insure that broadcasts are informational rather than inflammatory, factual rather than factional.
The Radios have been remarkably successful. Ask Poland's Lech Walesa and Czechoslovakia's Vaclav Havel. The Radios have now been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize -- by the foreign minister of Estonia.
Victory in the Cold War may be seen this way: American power contained communism. Thus constrained, communism was )R undermined by Western ideas. The ideas came through many channels, but radio was critical. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty deserves a prize not just for peace, but for freedom.
Now China. It is the last important redoubt of oppression. If China becomes free, that's the ballgame. The world will be free.
Surrogate programming to China has posed a problem. China's aged dictators fear the contagion of liberty. During the Cold War it was American policy not to irritate the old men lest they team up with the Soviets.
Things have changed. There is no Soviet Union left to team up with.
The Bush administration is still nervous about China. They believe antagonizing a mega-power of more than a billion people will be counter-productive. They oppose using Most Favored Nation tariff status as a bargaining lever to push for reform in China.
The Voice of America and State are nervous that money for Radio Free China might come from their genuinely strained funds.
So it's time to study, and probably time to act. There is geopolitical purity to it. Unlike Most Favored Nation, it requires no bargaining with the old tyrants. It's unilateral: Use new money (not VOA funds), hire staff, get transmitter time and start broadcasting.
Surely the Chinese dictators will try jamming. Surely they will be irritated. Tsk, tsk. But it's a one-time hit. Later complaints can be brushed aside by saying sorry, Radio Free China is independent, uncontrolled by the State Department.
It might work. If it does, it helps free the whole world.
Ben Wattenberg, American Enterprise Institute senior fellow, is author of ''The First Universal Nation,'' published by The Free Press.