Explaining China's Low and Falling Ranking on the UN World Happiness Report

A commentary by Dan Southerland
happiness.jpg Two tourists from China walking along a road in central Bangkok, Feb. 7, 2019.

China’s relatively low ranking in the most recent United Nations-sponsored World Happiness Report puzzles some experts.

Residents of more than 150 countries were asked how satisfied they are with their lives.

China ranked 86 out of the 156 countries, down seven places from the previous year.

As The Economist magazine noted, this placed China, “below Russia and even war-torn Libya.”

But one can think of a number of reasons why the Chinese, on average, ought to feel happy about their lives.

The middle class has been growing. Many Chinese can afford overseas travel as never before.

When I was assigned to cover China in the mid-1980s, many people were still riding bicycles. Now record numbers are driving cars. And Chinese tech companies are pushing to take the lead in the development of artificial intelligence.

As the Lowy Institute, a respected Australian think tank, noted, China’s Gross National Product (GNP) has multiplied five times in the past 30 years, but China’s reported levels of wellbeing are lower today than in 1990.

In 1990 China’s levels of happiness were high for what was then a relatively poor country.

Air pollution contributing to today’s unhappiness

Air pollution could be bad in Beijing when I reported from there from 1985 to 1990, due partly to the smog drifting in from an iron and steel plant, which was eventually closed.

I got a bad case of bronchitis out of it. But no one thought at the time that it was shortening lives the way it appears to be doing now, not only in Beijing but also in other Chinese cities.

And all of the cars on the road, once regarded as a sign of progress, are creating more smog as well as gridlock.

According to a 2015 study by the nonprofit Berkeley Earth, air pollution in China was already causing nearly one in five premature deaths a few years age. That’s more than 4,000 per day. That no doubt makes some people less than joyous.

How to measure happiness

Gallup, Inc. participated in the U.N. World Happiness Report through its annual global surveys. Gallup asked people around the world how their lives are going. The U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network then compiled the findings in the Happiness Report.

The Canadian Institute for Advanced Research provided statistical analysis.

A group of independent experts wrote individual country reports.

The U.N. Sustainable Development Network produced The World Happiness Report 2019 in partnership with the Italian-based Ernesto Illy Foundation.

This latest report ranks 117 countries on, among other things, the happiness of their immigrants, including migrants from other countries as well internal migrants.

The report documents the widespread unhappiness of an estimated more than 250,000 Chinese workers in cities who have migrated there from rural areas. They work at insecure, poorly paid jobs and lack benefits, such as insurance. Their children can’t study in city schools.

On April 24, the Financial Times reported that a plan to demolish nearly 25 million homes in designated “slum” areas in China over the past four years has been straining local government finances.

This means that some of the migrant workers who have spent their meager savings to build small, often makeshift homes will get no compensation for their homes’ destruction.

Taiwan now ranks as Asia’s happiest country

In contrast with China’s relatively low ranking in the World Happiness Report, Taiwan has risen seven places, making it number 26 on the list.

Based on the U.N. report, Taiwan can now be considered Asia’s happiest country.

Taiwan’s per capita GDP is roughly three times higher than China’s, but this might not be the only factor explaining its high ranking, according to the Lowy Institute report on the subject.

It says that from what are called longitudinal studies, or research gathered from the same group of individuals over a period of time, we know that the tolerance of “out-groups” and a society’s level of democracy are “strong predictors of happiness.”

The status of women might also be a factor in Taiwan’s favor, the Lowy report says.

Taiwan has a female president and a record number of women legislators that places it far above the international average.

At the top of the list

Not surprisingly perhaps, prosperous European countries dominated the top of the list in the World Happiness Report for 20190

Finland ranked as number one, followed by Norway, Denmark, Iceland, and Switzerland.

The United States came in 18th, down four places from the previous year.

As U.S. News put it, “the U.S., it appears, is getting richer but not happier.”

This leads us to consider what has been described as “the Easterlin Paradox.”

Richard Easterlin, a professor of economics at the University of Southern California, wrote the chapter in the Happiness Report on China.

His views were summed up in an article written for USC News by Suzanne Wu.

Based on a new study, Easterlin concludes that paradoxically, despite an unprecedented rate of economic growth, Chinese people are less happy overall than they were two decades ago.

Nearly three decades ago, in 1990, in the early stages of China’s economic transformation, a large majority of Chinese across age, education levels, and regions reported high levels of life satisfaction.

Sixty-eight percent of those in the wealthiest income bracket and 65 percent of those in the poorest bracket reported high levels of satisfaction in 1990.

Growing unease

But according to the latest work done by Easterlin’s research team, the percentage of the poorest Chinese who say they are satisfied with their lives has fallen more than 23 percentage points.

This reflects a growing unease about employment prospects and the dissolution of the state-sponsored social safety net.

“There are many who believe that well-being is increased by economic growth, and the faster the growth, the happier the people are,” says Easterlin.

“There could hardly be a better country than China to test these expectations,” he says.

“But there is no evidence of marked increase in life satisfaction in China of the magnitude that might have been expected due to the enormous multiplication in per capita consumption,” Easterlin says.

“…China has gone from being one of the most egalitarian countries in the world in terms of life satisfaction to one of the least.”

He notes that when it comes to health, the divide between the wealthiest Chinese and the poorest has grown, driven by a decline in self-reported health among the poorest Chinese and an increase among the wealthiest.

Easterlin concludes that “there is more to life satisfaction than material goods, and there is an important policy lesson here for the Chinese government and policymakers generally: among ordinary Chinese people, especially the less educated and lower-income, jobs and income security, reliable and affordable health care, and provision for the children and elderly, are of critical importance to life satisfaction.”

Allowing for exceptions

While the experts may have nailed down some of the reasons for unhappiness, it’s important to allow for exceptions to their conclusions.

In such a big country, happiness might vary from city to city and province to province.

When I worked in China in the mid-1980s, I thought that Chongqing in southwest China was one of the most miserable of the many cities that I’d visited. It was heavily congested and polluted by coal-fired power plants.

Many workers there were struggling to carry their loads on poles up steep hillsides. The city even suffered from acid rain.

But Keith Bradsher, a veteran New York Times reporter based in China, brings us an entirely different story from today’s modernized Chongqing.

In a report published on April 12, Bradsher describes how Huang Lin Cai, “a cheery 23-year-old” is filled with optimism even though he recently lost his job at a Ford Motor assembly plant.

Far from panicking, Huang, “used his five months of severance pay to hang out with friends and ponder his career options. He thought that he might perhaps join a friend’s start-up company drawing cartoons on computers.

But for the moment Huang spends much of his time caring for and riding on his beloved motorcycle.

“I just ride to the riverside and enjoy the scene,” says Huang.

Huang was born around the time that I visited Chongqing in 1986.

Since then the city has shut down some of its old, heavily polluting coal-fired power plants. And during the Beijing Olympics in 2008, some factories were moved outside the city in order to make it more welcoming to tourists and media.

But it remains one of China’s most densely populated cities.

Dan Southerland is RFA's founding executive editor.


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