Traditional Chinese papercut of a character meaning "wealth and happiness". Image: TudouMao
HONG KONG—China’s economic growth has been the envy of the world—measured in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the country is booming. But if Chinese people were to gauge their country’s development on a scale of national happiness, the results might look very different, depending on whom you speak to.
In an in-depth investigation by RFA’s Mandarin service, Chinese people agreed on one thing: that 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.
“The improvement in our material lives is indisputable,” Sichuan-based historical author Luo Xuefeng told Investigative Report host Bai Fan.
“Our generation has been through the mill together. I lived in China during the Mao Zedong era. Then, by comparison you also have the Deng Xiaoping era. I think that the increase in happiness compared with those times is real,” said Luo, who has written several books about prominent characters in Chinese history.Uneven prosperity
You can never relax and feel secure because you are living from hand to mouth. You are without direction, and without a goal.
Gao Xue'an, laid-off worker
But not everyone has been able to benefit from the boost to happiness brought by increased prosperity.
One farmer from the northeastern province of Jilin said the pressure of life has increased in recent years, with many elderly people left without enough to live on. She says that she definitely doesn’t feel happy.
“My commune gave me 38 yuan (U.S. $5) a month to live on, and a colleague went and complained and they raised it by five yuan to 43 yuan,” said the woman, identified only by her surname, Zhao.
“A lot of people around here have nothing, and yet the authorities don’t care. They won’t even let you apply for social assistance...I have been ill for many years and they still won’t give it to me. My stomach hurts me so much... I am in so much pain,” she said, sobbing into the telephone.
Others from Zhao’s generation, disenfranchised by the rapid shift away from the traditional communist cradle-to-grave welfare system during the 1990s, agreed.
Laid-off worker Guo Xue’an, from Yichun city in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, said he didn’t feel happier these days either. He says he has far more worries pressing upon him than before.No more job security
In a collectivist society, first of all you are part of the group, part of the family. You have many obligations, and it’s often the group who decides how you live, and what occupation you choose and what women you marry and whether you migrate to another country or not.
Happiness scholar Ruut Veenhoven, University of Rotterdam
“Back in those times, we all had jobs and a fairly stable income...Nowadays even if you do a bit of work and make 100 yuan, what are you going to do tomorrow if there’s no work?”
“You can never relax and feel secure because you are living from hand to mouth. You are without direction, and without a goal,” Guo said.
Experts have used various criteria to measure overall happiness, including close personal relationships and community ties, financial security, and rewarding work.
According to psychological counsellor Zhan Chunyun, the question is more complicated than simply looking at material gains versus psychological ones, because material gain also has a psychological effect.
“There are many different factors which contribute to a feeling of happiness,” Zhan said.
“Materially, there has been an improvement, and I think psychologically too. There are lots of other factors at work: the level of mental health, job opportunities, relationship opportunities. Overall there has been an improvement in those areas as well,” he added.Stiff competition
But he cited many social problems faced by Chinese people that affected their overall happiness.
“There is tremendous competition everywhere now, and that is causing a lot of relationship problems,” he said.
For Ruut Veenhoven, a happiness expert at the University of Rotterdam in the Netherlands, it is precisely the closeness of personal ties in East Asian societies than can crank up the pressure on individuals.
“In a collectivist society, first of all you are part of the group, part of the family. You have many obligations, and it’s often the group who decides how you live, and what occupation you choose and what women you marry and whether you migrate to another country or not,” Veenhoven said.
“And that’s very much the East Asian pattern, and that very much limits the individual’s freedom. There are of course very good things to the family and the peer group, and the bad are a bit stronger than the good ones,” he said.
In a study of welfare systems across the world, Veenhoven said he found no link between government assistance levels and general well-being.
The 'good old days'
“I didn’t find a correlation with average happiness,” he said. “Democracy, yes, that does contribute to happiness in countries. A welfare state, no.”
Almost everyone interviewed cited economic competition as a key factor in psychological pressure and unhappiness, while some lamented the loss of old, community-based values.
Those most at risk of mental health problems in today’s China seem to be those least likely to benefit from the benefits of a capitalist-style market economy: laid-off workers, the sick who can’t afford medical treatment, and the elderly whose pensions fail to meet basic needs.
According to one woman, an urban white-collar worker in Heilongjiang, Chinese people were happier in the days before economic growth took off.
“I think people used to be happier before, when there weren’t so many demands in life,” she said. “While our standard of living has risen, and our material wealth has improved, our feelings of happiness have diminished and become more elusive. There is a feeling of dissatisfaction, which diminishes happiness,” she said.Original reporting in Mandarin by Bai Fan. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.