S. Pandiyarajan was fiddling around with his shortwave radio set one hot summer evening at Villupuram, Tamil Nadu, when he stumbled upon a strange station.
At first listen, it was a language he couldn’t identify. It sounded like Tamil, but spoken in an accent he could not recognise. He listened on, straining his ears. To his surprise, he discovered that the voices were coming from faraway China.
“I could hear two Chinese people speaking in perfect Tamil!” he said. “And this was Sentamizh [classical Tamil], which you never hear anywhere, anymore, even in Tamil Nadu.”
That evening, Mr. Pandiyarajan became the latest member of China Radio International’s fast-growing overseas fan base. The station, run by the Chinese government, has, for more than six decades, been tasked with carrying news from China — from politics to arts and culture — to boost the country’s image overseas.
With humble beginnings in the civil war-torn China in the 1940s, CRI today is at the centre of a massive multi-billion dollar effort to boost rising China’s “soft power” overseas, sending out daily broadcasts in 63 languages, 24 hours a day, from its expansive multi-storey headquarters in west Beijing.
Remarkably, CRI’s Tamil station enjoys the widest reach of all its channels. Its popularity underscores the quiet success China’s “soft power” push is having in unlikely locations. The Tamil station, which broadcasts every day from a modest 12th floor office, has more than 25,000 registered listeners — besides thousands of others who tune in casually every day — in Tamil Nadu and the rest of India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore, South Africa, Germany, the United States and Japan.