China is unhappy

China is unhappy

Happiness research is a growing discipline in social science that is taken more seriously in the academy and increasingly among policymakers as well. AEI President Arthur Brooks has done research on the subject, finding the happiest people are those who have earned their success. That does not always mean making a lot money, but rather achieving success of any kind through enterprise, perseverance, creativity, and so on. Others, such as authors of the famous Grant Study, have found that "happiness is love," including family, friendships, and social relationships. This is only a small sampling of the literature. Why are these findings of relevance to policymakers? As Ronald Inglehart and Hans-Dieter Klingemann have written:

"A society’s level of subjective well-being….is intimately related to the legitimacy of the socio-economic political system…if subjective well-being of an entire society falls sharply below its normal baseline, it can destabilize the entire political order."

If Inglehart and Klinemann are correct, China watchers and policy analysts need to start thinking differently about the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). There is something close to a consensus among Western observers of China that the CCP’s legitimacy rests on two pillars. The first is performance — sustained economic growth that translates into better living standards for all Chinese people. The second is a distinct kind of nationalism — the CCP convinces the Chinese people that it and it alone can right the many wrongs of the past and restore China to its proper place of greatness.

The latter pillar actually makes more obvious sense than the former. The idea that legitimacy is based on growth in material well-being implicitly assumes that man can be reduced to homo economicus-that is, that man is interested in the material alone. The latter pillar, on the other hand, seems to be grounded in a better understanding of human nature. That is, man is driven by honor, pride, and anger as well as other emotions or virtues.  

The findings of two social scientists, Jiayuan Li and John W. Raine, when combined with the conclusions of Inglehart et. al. about happiness and legitimacy has consequences for how we and Chinese leaders should think about the CCP’s longevity.   

By any measure, China has experienced tremendous economic growth since 1978. Living standards have improved markedly as has China’s performance across a wide range of social indicators — poverty reduction, school enrollment rates, life expectancy. And yet, Li and Raine’s research shows a negative correlation between happiness and economic growth in China. Chinese are less happy than northwest Europeans, Mexicans, Thais and other Southeast Asians.

Li and Raine also found that China’s happiness has declined over time. Li and Raine fully acknowledge the limits of their research. For example, one measurement they use is the number of grievance protests in Beijing. More Chinese petitioning of Beijing could indeed be a sign of increased unhappiness, it could also be a sign of increased happiness in that the Chinese people feel more like citizens than subjects and have some way to try and secure justice. And collecting statistics and conducting surveys in China is notoriously difficult.   

Even so, their findings do not overly surprise me. Take the two findings about happiness mentioned above, earned success, and social networks. To really earn success one needs a strong sense that the playing field is level and fair. Given the levels of corruption in China and the special privileges afforded to the well-connected, it is doubtful that Chinese feel that they can truly earn success without somehow cheating or gaming the system. There is a serious loss of dignity — a profound human desire — in living in a society where people feel compelled to cheat to get ahead or that  no justice exists when others cheat.

Then there is the issue of social and family relationships. Through the one-child policy, the Chinese government is destroying the traditional Chinese family. A generation of Chinese is growing up without siblings, cousins, uncles, and aunts. Given the importance in Chinese history of the extended family for social insurance and security as well as for the proper ordering of one’s place in society, its destruction has broad repercussions for societal happiness. Add to that a general trust deficit in China and the findings of social scientists focused on happiness ring true.

Many thought the CCP’s days were numbered after the fall of the Soviet Union. Given the patterns of democratization in East Asia, most China watchers and policymakers thought that more wealth would bring greater demands for political participation and democracy. Policymakers needed an explanation for why the CCP continues to monopolize power in China, despite the fall of other Marxist-Leninist regimes and more wealth. But now it may be time to develop other indicators to measure the regime’s resilience — societal happiness is a good place to start.