BEIJING - While the press in the United States has focused on presidential debates, China's state-run newspapers recently dedicated their front pages to another big political story: the annual meeting of the Communist Party's Central Committee.
U.S. reporters analyze differences between the presidential candidates, interview potential voters and compare polling results. China's major papers carried stories last week that ran virtually word for word, accompanied by identical photos of the party's aging leaders raising their right hands in unison to approve a draft of the 10th Five Year Plan.
"The plenum gave its backing to the notion that economic development and restructuring should rely on scientific innovation," the state-run New China News Service reported Thursday, accurately reflecting the meeting's level of discourse.
As Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore debate tonight for a third time, it's worth leafing through China's newspapers from last week when the two were in the midst of their second debate, for perspective on some of the priorities in the world's most-populous country.
The choice and content of stories demonstrate the stark difference in the U.S. and Chinese political systems, and the occasional, similar ennui they seem to inspire in their respective peoples.
Not all of China's newspapers toe the government line. A few bucked the trend last week and published gritty tales focusing on some of the nation's deepest problems, including poverty, the sorts of things the party would never discuss in detail at annual meetings.
Much of the political coverage, though, was as if it had been lifted from a time capsule buried more than a decade ago when it seemed that half the world was run by humorless old men who had never stood for popular election.
To appreciate the Chinese media at its most dutiful worst, you could have turned to Channel 1 on China Central Television(CCTV), the national network, at 7 p.m. Thursday to watch the evening news. The half-hour broadcast featured more than 16 stories on the speeches, meetings and travels of the nation's top leaders, a program that could have been called "What the Politburo Did Today."
The first 10 minutes described the comings and goings of Jiang Zemin, general secretary of the Communist Party and China's president. Viewers learned that Jiang had met with the president of Algeria, a Chinese-American mathematician and the second deputy prime minister of Saudi Arabia, and discussed the 10th Five Year Plan with China's tiny "democratic" parties, which - no surprise - all supported the draft.
The second 10 minutes was largely devoted to Zhu Rongji, China's premier, and Li Peng, head of the National People's Congress, who is best known outside China for issuing the martial law order in 1989 that led to the army massacre of protesters during the Tiananmen Square uprising.
With a few minutes left, CCTV broadcast a story more directly relevant to the lives of the nation's 1.3 billion people: government plans to print a new denomination of its currency, the renminbi (RMB). The new notes will be worth 20 RMB, about $2.40, and make daily transactions more convenient.
Most of China's newspapers led Thursday's editions with the closing of the party meeting. They had little choice. One of the nation's most independent newspapers, Southern Weekend, published stories on the usurious taxation of farmers, a policy that has led to a series of pitchfork rebellions in the past year. In August, at least 10,000 peasants stormed local offices in south-central China's Jiangxi Province, attacking officials' homes and clashing with armed police to persuade government leaders to reduce taxes.
Southern Weekend's story focused on the best-selling book in the province called "Cutting Down the Peasant's Burden Manual." The book, which sold 12,000 copies in 13 days, explains the tax laws and regulations as they apply to farmers. Farmers bought the $1.20 book for as much as $18 on the black market to use as a guide in their defense against rapacious local officials.
Local officials responded by confiscating copies of the book.
Southern Weekend's coverage includes a question-and-answer segment with Li Changping, the former party secretary of Qipan - or "Chessboard" - village. By reforming the local tax system, Li so angered government higher-ups that he was forced to leave town. Now living in the Southern city of Shenzhen, Li offered a candid assessment of the injustices besetting China's farmers and those who try to seek fair treatment in a political system with few checks and balances.
"I hurt the interests of many people at the county [government]," Li says matter-of-factly of his departure. "If I stayed, it would not have been good for the job.
"I hope more and more cadres [that is, party officials] would go to the market and get their meal, " Li said, speaking in the oblique style of a Chinese official. "Don't stare closely at the pocket of the peasants."