BEIJING – A woman from a big Chinese city visits her boyfriend's rural hometown and is so appalled by the squalor she sees that she dumps him. The story was fake, but it swept through Chinese media because it highlighted a deep societal gap that the ruling Communist Party has vowed to close.
Rural Chinese not only make less than city-dwellers but also receive significantly fewer social-welfare benefits, worsening a divide that was brought into focus by the fictional breakup, initially posted online as a real-life account.
The Chinese leadership, currently presiding over the country's largely ceremonial legislature through March 16, has pledged to introduce policies to bring prosperity to the countryside. In a key policy address over the weekend, Premier Li Keqiang pledged to improve countryside infrastructure and access in rural areas to social benefits.
"The core of our job is to bring a society of common prosperity," said Zhu Liangyu, a delegate to the National People's Congress from Beijing, "and we can only accomplish the task when the rural peasants are economically prospering."
Urban dwellers have only recently begun to outnumber rural ones in China, becoming more than half of the population in 2011. But the split between them has been entrenched by the decades-long practice of differentiating them and their rights based on residence registration. The Herculean task of addressing that split was highlighted by the uproar nationwide over the breakup story, which emerged earlier this year.
"The fake love dispute and the ensuing heated discussions are only symptoms of a torn-up society," observed Tang Yinghong, a psychologist and a popular national columnist.
The female protagonist was from Shanghai, which represents "metropolitan China" and is comparable to any city in a developed country. Her lover hailed from a poor village in the hinterland province of Jiangxi, which could "be worse than Third World countries," Tang said. They matched two popular stereotypes — the sheltered, well-heeled "peacock" girl of the city, and the self-made "phoenix" man from the hinterland who makes good in the big city.
"The two Chinas have vastly different lifestyles, cultures and ideological thoughts, and the split between the two has reached an astonishing level," Tang said.
The story as posted on a Web forum was from the point of view of the woman, explaining why she immediately fled from her boyfriend's hometown and from the relationship. Accompanying it was a dimly lit photo of a squalid dinner table with dubious-looking dishes.
The story hit the screens of millions of smartphones across China during the weeklong Chinese New Year holiday. Hardly anyone bothered to check its authenticity, but much of the country jumped to vent their thoughts. Prominent columnists opined, and even the cardinal party-run newspaper People's Daily and official Xinhua News Agency chimed in.
Some observers bemoaned the woman's lack of etiquette, while others argued that rural realities would be a shock to any city woman.
Many real-life testimonials of such relationships soon followed, with some rural men wondering aloud whether they should even try for city women — a touchy subject in a country where men outnumber women because of the traditional preference for male children, especially in rural areas.
Relationship gurus snatched the chance to sell their theories on what makes a good match, while state media called for more tolerance and respect.
"The fates of the protagonists are the foam created by the currents of our times," the People's Daily wrote. "The media should not feast on their pains but reflect on deeper issues reflected by the foam."
Public discussions were so vehement that some Chinese journalists sought to find the protagonists and raised red flags when they could not. Eventually, China's online regulators stepped in, investigated and declared the story was fabricated and the photo pirated. Authorities did not reveal who was the creator.
Wu Qiang, a political scientist at Tsinghua University, said the furor over the break-up has showed the failure of Beijing to deliver the benefits of the past three decades of industrialization to ordinary people, especially those in China's vast countryside.
"A single photo of a rural dinner table has condensed so many social meanings of our time," Wu wrote. "What kind of social relationships and social realities have made everyone uncomfortable? Is it the widening gap between the cities and the countryside? Is it the class discrimination against the rural man? Or is it simply the differences in living habits between the rural and the cities?"
Wu argued that China's rural-urban differences must be addressed. "Only when everyone has equal rights can we make up the feudal gap between the cities and the countryside," he said.
In 2014, the average yearly income for a Shanghai resident was 47,710 yuan ($7,300), more than four times the 10,117 yuan ($1,547) a year for an average rural resident in the province of Jiangxi, though costs of living are significantly higher in cities.
Zheng Fengtian, a professor of agriculture and rural development at Beijing-based Renmin University, said the income disparity is not as alarming as inequality in social benefits.
For decades, China's national policies have favored city residents, who are granted better social benefits, such as health, education, employment and pensions, while rural dwellers are left with reduced benefits on the grounds that they have access to land.
Nearly 55 percent of China's 1.37 billion people live in cities, and Beijing has shifted its focus from urbanization to rebuilding the countryside, where national policies are aimed at extending more benefits to rural residents, Zheng said.
Plans in the annual work report Premier Li presented to the National People's Congress include building 200,000 kilometers (124,000 miles) of new roads in rural areas, upgrading power grids and improving drinking water safety. The report also aims to promote farming and to increase investment in rural areas.
"The dual system has been around for decades, and changes will take a long time," Zheng said. "The key is to narrow the gaps between the cities and countryside. Now we are building the villages, where residents there can one day enjoy the same benefits as everyone else."