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.
The Tamil station started broadcasting in 1963. Since then, it has continued to beam its shows uninterrupted, building up an almost cult following overseas, with its fans even organising themselves into a network of listeners' clubs.
Leading the station is Zhu Juan Hua, from Shanghai, who prefers to go by the Tamil name Kalaiarasi. Ms. Zhu has been with CRI Tamil since its launch, among the first group of students in this country who were trained in Tamil.
“When I joined CRI, the situation was far different,” said Ms. Zhu. “We had few speakers. Today, we have 15 highly trained Chinese Tamil-speaking staff, and plan to hire six more this year. We have been growing, and growing.”
Speaking in fluent Tamil, she says the station receives more than 450,000 letters every year, accounting for 30 per cent of all the letters CRI's more than 60 channels receive.
CRI, along with China Central Television and the Xinhua news agency, is now in the middle of an $8.7-billion “soft power” push to boost Chinese media overseas.
The station is on a drive to purchase prominent slots on local AM and FM channels in many countries. Earlier this year, CRI's Urdu channel launched FM broadcasts in Pakistan. CRI Tamil has also launched FM broadcasts in Sri Lanka, and is now in talks with stations in Tamil Nadu. CRI's Tamil shows are currently broadcast in India, on shortwave, every evening for two hours, starting at 7.30 p.m.
This month, the station invited the heads of some of its listeners' clubs in Tamil Nadu to visit its Beijing headquarters, part of an effort to engage more with listeners.
S. Selvam, head of the All-India Listeners' Club, said the station's popularity was driven by its novelty. “The first thing that strikes you is, why are these Chinese people learning Tamil, and speaking perfect Sentamizh?” he said. “You think, if they are making such an effort, we have to reach out to them.”
Mr. Pandiyarajan agreed. “This is something completely new,” he said. “We have Villupuram Tamil, Chennai Tamil, Puducherry Tamil. But I never thought I would discover that there would also be a Cheena [Chinese] Tamil.”