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ARTICLE: How the Chinese state brushes aside social problems

Rush hour at Guomao by Jens Schott Knudsen, licence CC BY-NC 2.0

The Chinese state media uses ritualistic framing to distract public attention from the social issues related to the annual Spring Festival homecoming, writes Meng Li, of Loyola Marymount University. The author analysed the coverage of the 2013-2014 Spring Festival on a morning show on the state-controlled CCTV-2 channel.

The Spring Festival is an annual celebration associated with the lunar new year. According to tradition, it is a time when families come together, even over long distances. In a country going through massive internal migration from rural inlands to coastal metropolises, the annual Festival leads to an incredible movement of people – up to 3.6 billion passages within a period of 40 days.

The homecoming traffic is a logistical issue, but the underlying reasons are social and political. The need for families to separate, instead of relocating as a whole, is created by state and local policies. Furthermore, many of the issues hampering the Festival traffic are due to inefficiencies and corruption in various authorities.

In order to distract the public from the underlying issues, state media year after year constructs a narrative focused solely on logistics, Li writes. The heroes of this narrative are the “pious pilgrims” heading home for the Festival and the selfless transportation workers who make it possible.

The villains of the story are individual crooks: ticket scalpers and thieves preying on the passengers. More importantly stories emphasize the authorities’ valiant efforts to improve transportation and the passengers’ emotional attachment to their families.

The framing of the story is highly constructed, the author points out. For example, stories rarely specify the time of an event – this allows individual reports to be neatly compiled into a larger story. It begins with the passengers’ eager anticipation of the homecoming, progresses through various hurdles along the way, and ends with a successful family reunion. The cause and effects of separation, however, are barely touched upon.

The article “Staging a social drama” was published by the journal Journalism. It is available online (abstract free).

Picture: Rush hour at Guomao by Jens Schott Knudsen, licence CC BY-NC 2.0.

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