What began as a matchmaking show on television has become a rare public forum in China for unfiltered social commentary.

Young contestants, instead of sticking to the script and picking their romantic partners, began venting about the growing gap between the rich and the poor (currently the widest in modern China's six-decade history), official corruption and rising housing prices — all sensitive topics for a public debate.

In a country where the government controls the media, the frankness of the debate — a far cry from the scripted and often insipid news broadcasts on the official China Central Television (CCTV) — has resonated with millions of young Chinese. One dating show on a regional television channel, where potential suitors voice their opinions on social issues besides declaring their romantic interests, has now become one of the most watched television programmes, with its success spawning half-a-dozen similar shows.

“It is unusual for us to see issues that people think about, and talk about in private, like the growing gap between the rich and the poor, being spoken about so openly on television,” said Gao Chenliang, a postgraduate student in Peking University who faithfully tunes in every evening to Jiangsu Television's If You Are The One. “These dating shows are a breakthrough, as they are putting in sensitive, unspeakable truths on the screen.”

Last week, one wealthy 22-year-old from Beijing unleashed a storm of public fury and debate when she bragged about her wealth and rejected another contestant because he did not own an apartment.

“I would rather weep in a BMW than smile [on your bicycle],” she declared. Her comment spread like wildfire on the Internet, sparking heated debates online and even finding mention in editorials of national newspapers.

The public reaction — even some official Communist Party-run newspapers got into the act of chastising her — points to not only how influential reality television shows have become in shaping public opinion but also how sensitive young Chinese are to the growing wealth gap.

The backlash to her comments has prompted the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), the official media watchdog, to issue new rules to regulate — ironically — what can and cannot be said on a reality television show.

A directive issued this week banned “morally provoking hosts and hostesses”, and said participants on shows “will now have to undergo stricter screening procedures and be cautious before mouthing venturous remarks”. SARFT also criticised some television channels for scripting “too sensitive” debates ostensibly to attract eye-balls. Unsurprisingly, the restrictions have been criticised by young Chinese. “Truths exhibited in these TV programmes are going against the government's principles to create a harmonious society,” Mr. Gao remarked drily, referring to President Hu Jintao's often-repeated policy objective to create “a harmonious society”. (Chinese bloggers now refer to articles that are deleted by censors as having been “harmonised”.)

Han Shenglong, a professor at Peking University, said the restrictions were “unnecessary”. “The dating shows are not anti-government,” he said. “And adults fully understand what's happening in China. Social awareness cannot be simply influenced or distorted by controlling a television show.”

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