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China’s social challenge; laughing to keep from crying
How contented is China? This question increasingly no longer just haunts the leadership, as it scrambles to shore up social stability, but also companies operating on the Mainland whose workers’ attitudes are taking on increasing importance, shown by recent strikes, most dramatically at Foxconn, first in Shenzhen and more recently in Wuhan. A survey by the World Economic Forum before this year’s meeting in Davos found that income disparities were top of the list of issues which residents thought would threaten global stability this year – the first time that it had even appeared on the list of their concerns.
On that last count, Hu Jintao’s protracted campaign for a more “harmonious society” in which wealth would be spread more evenly seems to have had little effect. Rural incomes have, indeed, been raised and the big increases in the minimum wage decided in the summer of 2010 (see our report) are pushing up the earnings of urban workers. But all the evidence from everyday observation is that while the poor get less poor, the rich get richer at an even faster rate.
Can’t afford to be born
This fosters a sense of unfairness and deprivation, even if the less wealthy actually have more cash in their pockets. Such sentiment is heightened as the price of services catering for the middle class and above puts them out of general reach. As a much-read round robin email put it: “Can’t afford to be born because a Caesarean costs 50,000 yuan; can’t afford to study because schools cost at least 30,000 yuan; can’t afford to live anywhere because each square metre is at least 20,000 yuan; can’t afford to get sick because pharmaceutical profits are at least 10-fold; can’t afford to die because cremation costs at least 30,000 yuan.”
Though the government has not published its Gini coefficient (measuring wealth disparities) for a decade, the state newspaper, China Daily, quoting government sources, has reported that the coefficient rose from 0.33 in 1980 to 0.46 in 2006. This is above the level at which social discontent is taken as a real danger. A China Daily story in 2010 quoted a senior researcher as putting it “past the warning level”. An on-line questionnaire in late 2009 asked academics, Communist Party cadres and the general public to name the biggest problems China would face in the coming decade: the wealth divide and corruption headed the responses, followed by clashes between the authorities and “the masses at the grassroots”, property prices and a “crisis of trust and loss of moral standards”.
In the face of such popular sentiment (which we analysed in our report on China’s Stress Test last August and again in China’s Weathervane last month) some of China’s most prominent regional leaders have made happiness a major objective. In the south the provincial authorities have launched a “Happy Guangdong” campaign: “Happiness for the people is like flowers,” Wang Yang, the Guangdong CCP Secretary wrote, adding that the role of the Party and government was to “create the proper environment for the flowers to grow”. Since then he has put forward the settlement of the high-profile dispute in the village of Wukan and the move towards open local elections as a template for dealing with protests and spoken of the need for a new deal for migrant workers as well as for less emphasis on crude GDP growth.
In Chongqing, Bo Xilai aims to make his municipality a place in which “people have the strongest feelings of happiness”. Beijing city authorities want the capital’s inhabitants to lead “happy and glorious lives” – video screens showed residents delivering “happy testimonials” on video screens across the capital last year while Beijing Television ran films under the title of Happy Blossoms. There is talk of judging local officials by the degree of happiness among those they administer as well as on their growth performance. It is all eerily like the national contentment described in the novel, The Fat Years, in which material progress underpins national amnesia about terrible events in the near past.
Different polls, different stories
The annual polls of global attitudes by the Pew Institute since 2006 have shown between 81 and 85 per cent of Chinese questioned expressing satisfaction with the country’s direction and between 88 and 91 per cent satisfied with the PRC’s economic performance. Even given the likelihood that people in an authoritarian state will respond positively, those are very high figures. They are backed up by the latest edition of the regular surveys done by Tony Saitch and colleagues at Harvard which show generally high levels of satisfaction.
However, other polls tell a different story. A Gallup survey conducted in 155 countries between 2005 and 2009 to measure satisfaction and happiness levels placed the PRC 125th. This more downbeat picture was borne out by a compendium of opinion surveys I put together for my new book on China. Any single survey may be questionable due to its sample or its methodology or the time at which it was taken, but there is a clear pattern of high aspirations in a materialist world breeding anxiety.
A national survey published in Party media at the end of 2010 reported that 73.5 per cent of respondents felt “vulnerable”: nearly half the officials questioned put themselves in that category. The Blue Book of China’s Society for 2011 compiled by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences reported declining levels of job satisfaction, falling confidence in social welfare programmes and high concern about inflation. A survey by a health magazine at the same time found half the residents of Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen to be unhappy with their living conditions. A poll by the People’s Tribune in 2010 found 58 per cent of white-collar workers, 55 per cent of intellectuals and 45 per cent of Party and government officials feeling “powerless”.
And so it goes on. The White Book of Happiness of Middle Class Families released in 2010 and drawing on the opinions of 100,0000 people from 35 cities reported that even in the most contented provinces more than half those questioned said they were not happy. Another survey found that 84 per cent of high school pupils said they felt depressed or stressed. (This is to leave to one side the separate ongoing challenge in Xinjiang, where the security forces have been expanded, and in Tibet and its border areas, where two demonstrators were shot dead late last month and more than a dozen protesters against Chinese rule, mainly Buddhist monks and nuns, have burned themselves to death in the last 12 months.)
What is one to conclude from this apparent contradiction between the positive and negative survey results? The conclusion must be that, while pride in China’s growth and re-emergence as a major power is high, the problems spawned by that growth are becoming ever greater. Though the censorship apparatus remains powerful despite the challenge of social media and the police force has been raised to 2 million (plus armies of enforcers employed by local authorities), it is ever harder for the authorities to impose uniformity of thought and blind obedience in such a rapidly developing society, where old values wilt and Confucian tradition has to battle with material modernity. Not that they do not try. The Communist Party Plenum last autumn made cultural control a major issue and was followed by a media clampdown which we covered in our note last month. The senior editorial team of a newspaper in Hunan was reported to have been sacked at the beginning of this month after running a report of complaints about inflation at the Lunar New Year. Television stations have been told to run an hour of approved news each night in place of entertainment shows.
The social stakes
For the moment the central leadership is protected by the age-old belief that it is more virtuous, caring and honourable than grasping local officials. Surveys show that the approval rating for the authorities diminishes as one goes down the chain of command. The old idea persists that corruption and malpractice stem mainly from functionaries at village, township and county level (be they imperial magistrates or Party village bosses) and would be put right by the supreme power in the capital if only it knew how its servants were misbehaving. This is supported by the Harvard surveys.
Still, Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao today, and Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang tomorrow, have to deal with a far more complex set of public attitudes than in the past, when Sun Yat-sen or Mao Zedong could regard the Chinese people as sand to be shaken into the shape the ruler chose, or a blank sheet on which the future could be inscribed. China’s problems may be as much social as economic as the new leadership settles in next year.
Trusted Sources website is at www.trustedsources.co.uk