Spreading the news
The son of a peasant from a southern Guangdong village, Chen Yong's aspiration as a university student was to become a scientist to advance the genetic quality of crops and improve the lot of farmers.
While studying at the South China Agricultural University he subsidised his modest living expenses in the city with income earned from providing expert information to the south's leading rural newspaper, the Nanfang Nongcun. This sideline evolved into a career after he abandoned his academic ambitions when he graduated in 1988 and joined the newspaper as a reporter.
'It was a practical decision then - the wages were better. I was the eldest child and needed to help out the family,' he said.
Two decades on and now the chief editor of the newspaper, Mr Chen believes he is contributing as much to advance rural development as he would have done as a scientist.
Like other publications under the Nanfang Media Group umbrella, the Nongcun newspaper has kept a critical approach in tackling sensitive rural issues in-depth, like the collusion between state academics and companies in selling substandard agriculture seeds and resources. Or the article on how increasing prices were forcing farmers to cut spending in basic needs such as health care. And another piece about how the lack of teachers was hampering the promotion of free education.
In a touching account of how a farmer's daughter had to give up school to work in Guangzhou to earn enough to support her family, the paper included a short editorial urging society not to neglect people living on the margins.
'We speak for the peasants,' Mr Chen said. 'The paper has two goals: one is to fight for the rights of peasants, the other is to provide information and solutions to help them raise their production output.'
With the central government increasing its focus in advancing the development of the rural economy, executives at the newspaper believe their professional calling is reaching new heights; it also doesn't hurt to visualise the potential audience size in the vast countryside, even if illiteracy is more rampant than in the cities.
In rural China in general, it is schools and village standing committees that usually subscribe to newspapers - mostly Communist Party mouthpieces. Nongcun (which means peasantry or rural area) claims to have the largest rural newspaper circulation on the mainland, with a subscription rate of 360,000 to 380,000.
China's rural areas have historically been plagued with complicated issues that the government and policy-makers must resolve. Decades of neglect, resulting from a government priority to industrialise urban regions, have exacerbated the problem.
The urban-rural income gap has widened to a three to one ratio. Many farmers have been preyed upon by their township and village officials for exorbitant taxes that went into the bureaucrats' pockets.
Rural credit co-operatives, established to cater to the financing needs of farmers, have been appropriated and mismanaged, chalking up mountainous debts, causing peasants and rural enterprises to suffer a credit crunch. The number of mass incidents (the euphemism for protests and riots) rose in 2006 to 87,000, from 10,000 in 1994, official data has revealed.
This year could be a turning point - the 30th anniversary of the mainland's economic reforms, which began, ironically, in the countryside. The party's central committee No1 document - the first major government policy priority document for the year - is again expected to reiterate Beijing's commitment to rural issues.
Since President Hu Jintao's drive to build a 'new socialist countryside' was indoctrinated, the government has introduced measures to help farmers play catch up. The most pivotal was the scrapping of the agricultural tax in 2006, which reduced the financial burden on peasants by 125 billion yuan a year, according to the State Council's Development Research Centre.
Even though the abolition has boosted rural income growth, the gap will widen, warned the 2008 Blue Book on Social Development released early this month by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a central government think-tank.
The academy said the average disposable income of urban residents, taking inflation into account, jumped by 13.2 per cent year-on-year in the first three quarters of last year to 10,346 yuan, compared with farmers' average cash income of 3,321 yuan in the same period.
The central government has also undertaken numerous pledges to increase infrastructure spending in the countryside, invest in education and health care, as well as reform the financial network.
This month, the mainland's banking and insurance regulators added weight to the push for a more efficient rural network by encouraging city commercial banks and foreign lenders to venture into the countryside, as well as planning for the introduction of micro insurance policies. In addition, the Ministry of Agriculture has begun providing market information that it hopes will help farmers in planning to produce the right crops at the right volume according to market demand and supply.
This is where newspapers can play a major role in disseminating information, Mr Chen believes. 'As a newspaper, we are like a community where farmers are the main members. We gather together rural experts, officials and entrepreneurs ...[to] study and provide solutions to help farmers in their farming ventures. The rationale is really looking at what farmers need.'
Rural newspapers are traditionally tough to operate as a business by the mere fact that the rural market is economically weaker, despite optimistic editors such as Mr Chen, who is witnessing an increase in spending power that will help boost the newspaper's circulation. The Nongcun newspaper has increased its price from 80 fen to 1 yuan, and its frequency to three times a week. It's likely to be one of the few newspapers that are profitable and self-sustaining.
Mr Chen said profits last year had risen to 1.17 million yuan, up from the previous 1 million yuan, on the back of an average annual 15 per cent rise in advertising revenue that totalled 16 million yuan. Subscription revenue last year was 45 million yuan.
China had 1,938 dailies by the end of 2006, according to the industry watchdog, the General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP), which did not provide a breakdown figure. GAPP stressed that under the 11th five-year plan (2006-2010), priority in government investment and resource allocation would be given to san nong newspapers (san nong refers to the three main rural issues of strengthening agriculture, raising rural income and developing the rural economy) to promote the central government's 'new socialist countryside' programme.
In an interview published by the GAPP-controlled China Press and Publishing Journal this month, GAPP vice-minister Li Dongdong urged publishing regulators and local officials to adhere to government policies and support newspapers' 'service to the rural sector', including providing resources and local tax concessions, as well as soliciting funds from society at large.
'Each paper or publishing outlet should [when reporting] examine in-depth the actual rural situation,' she said.
The government drive has given a reprieve to a few newspapers that were able to turn business around by tapping the national postal network and adopting more market-oriented practices such as selling advertising space, something relatively new, particularly to party newspapers. A report on January 11 from the online version of the party mouthpiece People's Daily reported that Nongcun Xinbao in Hubei province had tied up with the local credit co-operative to expand circulation and increase revenue.
Such optimism is not typical, says Zhan Jiang, head of the China Youth University for Political Sciences' news and media department.
'Generally speaking, not all rural newspapers have a future in the market,' he said. 'How much do farmers really want to read [newspapers]?'
Mr Zhan cites the example of the Beijing-based bi-weekly West Times, which focuses on the development of the poorer western regions. It has such a small readership the paper is largely unknown.
Conversely though, he believes the Nanfang Group's Nongcun might be in a better position as it targets the prosperous southern province. Nongcun also defines its target audience in the 'big rural concept', which includes county level and those working in rural enterprises and schools.
Mr Chen said government efforts in the past two years to put in place rural policies, including health-care subsidies and free education, had improved conditions, especially in Guangdong villages that he and his reporters travel to extensively.
'Farmers are setting up co-operatives to better capitalise on their resources to lift production, which in time to come will increase their spending ability,' he said. 'In addition, more financial institutions are expanding into the rural market, which will also help change the landscape.'
In contrast, in the less developed and relatively poorer central Henan province , where most farmers have yet to develop a newspaper reading habit, 51-year-old illiterate farmer Wei Xiuyin says her main source of information is television.
Her 53-year-old husband Li Jinan is one of the few people in Tangzhuang village in Dengfeng city to read a newspaper every day. But he does not pay for the copy as it is a perk of his job as the village's accountant. 'Few people in rural areas read or subscribe to newspapers because they don't have enough money,' said Mr Li, who earns 220 yuan a month.
He said the illiteracy rate had dropped in recent years, especially among young people, but they still did not like reading. 'Only those who own individual business can pay for newspapers with their own money because they have the need and money to seek information.'
Mr Chen said that despite the overall improvement in the countryside, any work related to rural issues was still relatively more difficult. When recruiting journalists, for the newspaper, he expects some idealism from candidates - a drive to want to help solve the san nong problem.
'It's not a job that sells on income,' he said.
Additional reporting by Jasmine Wang