China authorities pushing happiness amid rising discontent

Amid rising discontent, authorities are pushing the feel-good factor, and one city reports that 95.9pc of residents are content with their lot

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 November, 2012, 7:53am

With dissatisfaction growing over corruption, inequality, food safety and numerous other social problems, mainland authorities are shifting their focus from economics to emotions.

Simply put, they want everyone to be happy.

From Beijing to Ningxia, local, provincial and regional leaders have been setting up "happiness indexes" or otherwise tailoring programmes, projects and policies to increase people's satisfaction with their lives, as well as, of course, with the government.

Eighteen provinces and more than 100 cities have jumped on the happiness bandwagon in recent years, according to a report in Beijing News last week.

The campaign has helped the Communist Party set the stage for its 18th national congress, which opens this week amid increased incidents of social unrest.

While most analysts welcome the increased focus on people's welfare, some caution that happiness is hard to measure and suggest the party would be better off advancing concrete policies for social change.

The public has been less forgiving, mercilessly ridiculing the policy on the internet.

"Without a constitutional government and democracy, a 'Happy China' will only be a fable," said Professor Hu Xingdou, who is a commentator at the Beijing University of Technology.

"There are so many things that the authorities could do to improve the public's satisfaction, such as protecting civil rights, building a democratic country, fighting corruption, stopping illegal land grabs and cutting taxes."

Reform-minded Guangdong party secretary Wang Yang became perhaps the most prominent - and widely mocked - proponent of the public satisfaction drive last year when he outlined his proposal for a "Happy Guangdong" province.

As part of the plan, Wang allocated 423 billion yuan (HK$521 billion) for projects to improve people's livelihood. He said he would attempt to reduce the province's gross domestic product growth from a breakneck 12.5 per cent to a more manageable level of 8 per cent.

To measure his success, Wang set up an index of individual economic indicators, including employment, income, education, health care, crime, housing, infrastructure, social security and the environment.

But Wang was hardly the first to try out such a scheme. His now-disgraced rival, former Chongqing boss Bo Xilai, also pledged to slow the local growth rate after his city was named the mainland's happiest in 2010.

In Beijing, local propaganda authorities even aired a seven-episode television series in August offering advice to those who are unhappy.

In it, a professor with a psychology degree from Harvard University instructed people on how to find their inner peace, rather than find fault with the government.

Jiangyin city, Jiangsu province, had one of the earliest satisfaction drives. The local government set up its happiness index in 2007, promising to improve the city's employment, income, public safety and heath care, as well as reducing pollution.

The programme has been a rousing success, if you believe the government's survey. Within three years, Jiangyin found that 95.87 per cent of its residents felt happy.

Professor Xu Guangjian, of Renmin University's School of Public Administration and Policy, said he had not seen a single regional government that had been able to convincingly survey the public's level of happiness. "The factors behind unhappiness are obvious," he said.

Surveys conducted by Guangdong's newspapers and government think tanks suggest the main source of most people's gripes is the government, with many pointing to failures in job creation, social welfare, medical services, housing, pollution, food safety and soaring prices.

And there may be a new source of public dissatisfaction: satisfaction drives.

"It's very difficult to measure happiness and there's a subtle growing dislike of the authorities' overwhelming happiness campaigns," said Professor Xing Zhanjun, of the Centre for Quality of Life and Public Policy at Shandong University. "The public is starting to mock the word these days."

Nonetheless, central government authorities have been eager to extend the policy. Many local governments picked up the satisfaction agenda after Premier Wen Jiabao made happiness and human dignity central elements of his 2010 work report.

In the run-up to the party congress, China Central Television (CCTV) has been running a series of segments for it which it conducted 3,500 man-on-the-street interviews in an attempt to measure the mainland's "gross national happiness".

Many have dismissed the series as superficial. CCTV reporters simply ask people whether they are happy and an overwhelming majority answer "yes".

But the segments have not been without their enlightening moments, such as when a reporter pulled one interviewee out of a queue. "I am unhappy because when I answered your question, I lost my place in the queue," the person said.

Professor Steve Tsang Yui-sang, director of the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute, said Beijing, if it were truly serious about reform, would appoint independent research institutes to survey main obstacles to happiness.

"It can cost as little as several hundred thousand yuan and would be much cheaper than CCTV's street survey with some 70 camera crews," Tsang said.