What Makes Chinese People Happy?

Economic growth may not be enough, experts say.
2011-04-10
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With social pressure mounting on the ruling Communist Party to tackle rampant official corruption and a growing gap between rich and poor, top Chinese officials have called for a "happiness index" to replace economic growth figures as a measure of how the government is doing.

But experts say it will be hard to arrive at a useful definition of happiness, which could mean many things to different people in China.

"Of course most people in the world are actually looking for some kind of a happy life," said Beijing Institute of Technology professor Hu Xingdou.

"It would be hard to weight such an index ... but it should perhaps include measures of economic development and social harmony," Hu said.

"That would include a measure of democratic participation in politics."

China's economic growth has been the envy of the rest of the world, but the government has admitted to tens of thousands of "mass incidents" annually, often in relation to land sales, forced evictions, and allegations of corruption linked to development projects.

While the material standard of living for average citizens has improved dramatically since paramount leader Deng Xiaoping first threw open the doors to foreign investors in the 1980s, millions of laid-off and retired workers still complain of unpaid wages and pensions, and those who have work often complain of low wages and harsh treatment by employers.

Money not enough

Yang Xin, an environmentalist based in the southwestern city of Chengdu, said environmental factors aren't always linked to economic growth, yet play a key role in people's feeling of well-being.

"I believe that the level of harmony between man and nature has to be the first indicator of the experience of happiness," Yang said.

"If you live in a highly degraded environment, then you definitely won't make it onto any happiness index."

He said communities by lakes and rivers that have seen rapid economic development are now frequently faced with pools of dead stinking water, instead of their former beauty and abundance with fish and shrimp.

"How can you be happy [like that], however much money you make?" Yang said.

Hu said that while economic growth figures have traditionally been used as a measure of a nation's success, such statistics could overlook the experience of ordinary people.

"The idea of a happiness index is being widely discussed among people in China at the moment," he added.

Political participation

He added that the level of political participation and a smaller gap between haves and have-nots would also be an important indicator of people's welfare.

"There should also be some kind of health-care measure in there, for example, the number of hospital beds per 10,000 people," Hu added.

He said the high cost of health care, and how much of it is borne by individuals, would also be relevant to any Chinese index of happiness.

Yang agreed that any happiness index should reflect the lives of ordinary people.

"If ordinary people are to get on a happiness index, then they have to be listened to," he said. "This means that they must have a say in how their local area is developed."

"Otherwise, they won't get any benefit out of it in the long term," Yang said.

Disenfranchised

Millions who have been disenfranchised by the rapid shift in the 1990s away from China's traditional communist cradle-to-grave welfare system complain that they have lost access to health care or secure housing.

Experts have used various criteria to measure overall happiness, including close personal relationships and community ties, financial security, and rewarding work.

But experts say the question is more complicated than simply looking at material gains versus psychological ones, because material gain also has a psychological effect.

A global study by Ruut Veenhoven, a happiness expert at the University of Rotterdam in the Netherlands, found no link in the 1990s between government assistance levels and general well-being, although there was a link with democratic participation in government.

Almost everyone Veenhoven interviewed cited economic competition as a key factor in psychological pressure and unhappiness, while some lamented the loss of old, community-based values.

Reported by Gao Shan for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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