Reporting on Gaps in a Country Devoted to Harmony: In China, Social and Economic Gaps Are Acknowledged, but the News Media Rarely Probe Their Causes or Their Consequences

Article excerpt

In the early morning of December 15, 2005, three teenage girls were killed in a traffic accident while on their way to school. This happened in Chongqing, one of the biggest cities in China. The three families received different rates of compensation: According to the girls' families, 200,000 RMB was given to the family of each girl who had an urban household registration; 50,000 RMB was given to the family of the girl with a rural household registration. [There are eight renminbi, RMB, to one American dollar.]

This unequal treatment reveals the urban/rural and income gaps that are deeply rooted in China and strengthened by law and policy. And different news media in this country handle the reporting of stories like this one in different ways.

As the Lunar New Year approached in late January, on the front page of the People's Daily, the official newspaper of the central committee of the Chinese Communist Party, a special column appeared with the title, "Sending Warm Regards, Giving a Good New Year." What follows are news items that appeared in this column on January 22, 2006:

* Central government appropriates 17 billion RMB as pension security subsidy for enterprise employees.

* Party members among central government and party organs send warm hearts with money and goods, all of the donation arrived into the hands of people who have the needs.

* Free health check-up for 63 cleaners in Jinan, Shandong Province.

* InXian, Shaanxi Province: 800 model workers have gotten one million holiday subsidy from city government.

* In Dalian, Liaoning Province: Union mobilizes 16.4 million RMB, helps difficult migrant workers go home for holiday family reunion.

* In Zhangjiakou, Hebel Province: Ensure 170,000 difficult people have a safe winter, 64,000 party members help 18,000.

Along with this column, there were news stories related to ways that the government is working to bridge social and economic gaps:

* Fujian Province: all new provincial financial income is spent for agriculture, rural areas, and farmers.

* Hainan Province: financial spending focuses on things that benefit people.

* And a story entitled, "We did not expect to receive New Year call as a farmer."

More than a half of the news stories on the front page on this day were related to disadvantaged people. That kind of coverage is unusual and is likely happening now because of the Chinese New Year, the country's most important festival. But still it sheds light on the more typical way that the official media cover these gaps in China.

In the past few years, as the government started talking about building a harmonious society and began working on its Scientific Review on Development, the three new big societal gaps identified were urban/rural, east/west, and rich/poor. That there are three new large gaps is a reminder of the historic "Three Big Gaps" theory during the Mao era. Then the gaps were urban/rural, worker/farmer, and mental labor/manual labor, and the slogan was "Eliminating the three big gaps, toward the ideal Communist Society."

Mao's policies did indeed reduce income and social status gaps between mental and manual labor by degrading the former, but did not close the other two. In the early to mid-1980's, reformers among the party's leaders did reduce some of the urban/rural and worker/farmer gaps, however, by enhancing the latter. However, gaps among industries, regions and the haves and have-nots were still built-in, and in recent years these have even expanded in some regards.

Gradually, the topic of social gaps has received attention from scholars and those in the media, and more articles and stories about them have appeared. There are different approaches to covering these issues, since the media in China can be divided into two general categories--the official news media and the commercial one, which is also under the control of the party and state government. …