This is part of a Globe and Mail series in which Beijing correspondent Nathan VanderKlippe looks at China’s present and future challenges before his return to Canada.
The story of China, as delivered by its statisticians and propagandists, is a sunny tale of a country dispatching extreme poverty, steering the world’s economic growth and, earlier this year, adroitly depositing a rover on Mars.
The country’s slang tells a dimmer tale. In the raucous banter of online culture, China has developed a modern lexicon of ennui and gloom.
Laced with irony, dagongren – or labourer – has become a moniker for office wage slaves. The term wuxiao, meaning ineffective, has been repurposed to describe the boredom of a dead-end job. Moyu, or stroking the fish, serves as a tactile expression of slacking off – while tangping, or laying flat, suggests doing just enough to get by at work. Even a once-obscure academic term, involution – neijuan in Mandarin – has been repurposed to encapsulate a feeling of inescapable stasis, a rat race run without moving.
For many in the country, the past few decades have been an era of gilded joylessness. In 2013, when Xi Jinping became president, the World Happiness Report ranked China 93rd in the world, based on surveys of self-reported well-being. In 2020, it ranked 94th. In that time, its GDP expanded by nearly 50 per cent. Although its rank climbed to 84 this year, after the country successfully battled COVID-19, China remains, statistically, unhappier than far poorer countries, including Kazakhstan, El Salvador and Moldova.
When asked to imagine life as a 10-step ladder — with the top rung representing life at its most sublime and the bottom existence at its most torturous — Chinese people, on average, describe their lives as a five, a level that suggests “coping.” (Canadians average just above seven, or “doing well.”)
HAPPINESS SCORES, 2018-2020 AVERAGE
MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE:
2021 WORLD HAPPINESS REPORT
HAPPINESS SCORES, 2018-2020 AVERAGE
MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE:
2021 WORLD HAPPINESS REPORT
HAPPINESS SCORES, 2018-2020 AVERAGE
South Africa (#103)
MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: 2021 WORLD HAPPINESS REPORT
Why do so many in China remain so unhappy?
It’s a question with profound implications for a country whose growth has, until recently, been driven by single-minded pursuit of GDP. But the greatest economic advances in recent decades have been accompanied by keen dissatisfaction. Throughout the double-digit growth era of the 1990s, happiness in China sank precipitously, as the remaking of the economy resulted in massive layoffs from state-run companies and an accompanying surge of angst among workers whose futures suddenly fractured.
“The lesson is that GDP is a bad index of people’s well-being,” said Richard Easterlin, an economist at the University of Southern California who has been a pioneer in happiness research. “It leads to a focus on businesses and what policies will increase their output. Happiness focuses on persons and policies directed toward increasing people’s well-being.”
Researchers point to multiple reasons for the state of Chinese happiness. Decades of migration from rural areas to cities have split apart children from parents by the hundreds of millions, creating what John Helliwell, an editor of the World Happiness Report and a professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia, calls “dismembered families and the loss of community.” And yawning inequality hasn’t helped. China minted five new billionaires a week last year. Meanwhile, it takes 43.5 years of an average salary to buy an average apartment in Shenzhen.
Even the slight rise in reported happiness this year may be illusory: The epidemic forced changes in research methods that resulted in a sample body with incomes above the Chinese average.
There are, however, some signs China is growing less downhearted. The China Household Finance Survey, conducted by Southwestern University of Finance and Economics, showed an average happiness of 3.86 on a five-point scale.
Citizens of Communist Party-run China enjoy fewer liberties than people in democratic countries, but scholars have found that, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, happiness depends far more on government service delivery than voting rights. And China has been delivering, with a decades-long blizzard of new subway lines, improved health care and new opportunities for leisure at ski hills and tourist destinations alike.
“People’s satisfaction with government has continuously improved since early 2000,” said Shun Wang, a contributor to the World Happiness Report who is a scholar at the KDI School of Public Policy and Management in Sejong, South Korea.
Personal contentment is also tied closely to future expectations, and people in China remain largely confident that tomorrow will be better.
Yet happiness remains elusive for many – including some of the eight who shared their individual perspectives with The Globe and Mail.
Yang Mei, 28
Yang Mei grew up poor, in a home made of earth built by her grandfather in rural Sichuan province. Her childhood rang with the sound of parental arguments about money. Today, her parents live in a house with a second storey that she paid to add. She sends money home every month and has watched stability return to their relationship.
“This is one of the things that makes me happy,” she says. “I can buy them whatever they want.”
Growing up poor has, however, left a shadow of insecurity. After her family borrowed money to send her to university, she found it difficult to then quit a reliable marketing job to pursue a less certain future in comedy.
Finding her footing in the nascent world of Chinese stand-up has not been easy. She launched a comedy club, but with that came problems: poor ticket sales, venue cancellations and the withdrawal of business partners. Once, an actor told her that for a woman, being funny is not sexy. She felt cursed. Once she cried through the subway ride home.
But she recalled something a high-school teacher told her: “Whatever kind of person you are, that’s the kind of world you will find.” And she has discovered that perseverance brings improvement. Other comedians have complimented the progress in her comedy. Friends have helped her find solace in honesty. “I have found I am living a better life. It’s comfortable.” And she met someone who finds her work attractive. “That makes me feel so happy,” she said. He is now her boyfriend. In many ways, life gets better each year.
Yet anxiety remains. Her parents want her to have a baby. She is concerned about how to balance a family with her career. “Although I would say I have have gotten a lot better, I still worry. I want to take care of all the people who care about me.”
Hua Yong, 52
Dissident artist, Niagara Falls, Ont.
When Hua Yong landed in Canada on April 5, he felt weight lift from his shoulders. “I suddenly felt that I’m living like a human being,” he said. Behind him lay a home country that has detained him, imprisoned him and placed him into labour reform camps for his art. He remembers police cutting open the door to his studio with a welding torch. They seized his work, promising to return it only if he abandoned the studio.
But when he arrived in Canada, where he is seeking protection as a political refugee, immigration officers treated him with dignity. “Happiness,” he says, “is based, above all, on being allowed to be a person.”
It is also, he says, being able to tell the truth without fear of jail. He feels he has now found that place in Canada.
And yet, “the more happiness I feel, the more heartache I feel,” he said. His wife, son and daughter remain in China, Where the toxicity of his experiences coloured the art he created. “The figures I painted are always twisted, blooding or struggling,” he said.
Now living in Niagara Falls, he marvels at the bright flowers, blue skies and white clouds. He regularly runs along the Niagara River. After years of expressing darkness through this work, he recently found himself staring at an easel, unable to paint. “I keep thinking, how long will it take me to find a new means of creating art?” But China, he says, makes genuine contentment difficult. To be happy, you need first to be safe.
“You must be able to live with a sense of security and dignity. But sadly, I don’t think Chinese people have that,” he said. He doubts the President himself, Xi Jinping, rests easy. Even Mr. Xi “must think and calculate every day the possibility of being overthrown by others,” he said.
Xu Xia, 26
Sheep farmer, Qingyang, Gansu
Few things call to Xu Xia like the sky blue of the Chinese police uniform. She can picture herself arresting a thief and basking in the feeling of justice delivered. “I just love it,” she says. It’s an especially appealing alternative given where she lives in the far east of Gansu province, a place pockmarked by poverty. But after Ms. Xu enrolled in police college, she failed the final exam multiple times. So instead she works on a collective farm, where she is now in charge of 1,000 sheep, trimming hooves and treating the ill. It’s stable work, but exhausting. With money tight and work demanding, she finds it hard to feel much personal freedom. She has friends whose company she enjoys, but escaping social pressure is difficult, particularly as people her age get married.
There is pressure, too, to ensure she will one day be able to care for her aging and father. She enumerates a list of personal life tasks: secure a pension for her parents, cover insurance costs, buy a house, get a car “and then work hard to earn more money.” Opportunities tend to be greater in China’s cities, but growing up in a rural area ingrains an ability to endure hardship, she says, using a term that means “eat bitter.”
Yet, she also sees life improving at a rapid pace. She is more literate than her parents’ generation, and “if you have knowledge you can learn. That will make you happier.” And even as she tends the sheep, she continues to harbour dreams of the constabulary. She intends to sit for the exam again. It’s good to try, she figures. “Even if you don’t succeed, you won’t have any regrets.”
Zhou Rongguo, 45
Zhou Rongguo spent more than 20 years as a Huawei tech worker, much of it adhering to the company’ punishing 996 schedule: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week. It wasn’t uncommon to be at work even longer, up to 96 hours a week. The days were especially long when he was posted to positions in Mexico and South Africa, where a single Huawei employee did the work of two local hires. But after resigning – he says he was forced – new work has been difficult to find. Hundreds of résumés have yielded several interviews, but those have led nowhere. He worries that employers aren’t interested in a software designer in his 40s.
“They will think that since you are older, you won’t have as much energy and won’t work overtime as well as younger people,” he says. “Because often people of our age have families and children.”
He himself has become hotly opposed to China’s overtime culture. Although Huawei paid roughly 30 per cent above the industry average, working such punishing hours is “definitely not worth it,” he says. The higher salaries are also scarce compensation for the cost of living in China’s big cities. “It’s tough for your earnings to keep pace with rising housing prices.”
It’s one reason he sees life getting worse year by year. Since losing his job, he has become determined to seek change. What began as companies requesting overtime to finish urgent work has turned into an industrywide requirement to log long hours. “It’s treating people like a machine,” Mr. Zhou says.
Happiness, he said, would come from ensuring others don’t experience the same.
Wang Haiwu, 51
Woodworking instructor, Dongyang, Zhejiang
When Wang Haiwu began work in the oil industry, he could see clearly what the decades-long march to retirement would look like: a daily cycle of work, mahjong and a few cigarettes. “I thought to myself, this isn’t what I want,” Mr. Wang said. He wanted something more interesting, and a sense of fulfilment in his labours. He tried his hand at painting, but wasn’t particularly talented. Then he discovered woodwork. He loved the feeling of the wood, warm and pliable in the hand - different from the cold metal of the oil industry. For him, happiness lies in knowing that the tools and techniques used to fashion even a simple stool are inherited from many generations before him.
Sharing that with others has given satisfaction, too, as young people leave office jobs to study under him. So it bothers him when he sees internet celebrities pursuing woodwork for profit alone. “People will do anything to make money, and they are unscrupulous,” he says. In his own life, he has found the best solutions often involve no money at all: smoke less, drink less and spend less time with people you don’t like.
Yet he cannot escape his own financial worries, particularly to take care of elderly parents. “Of course, the most convenient way to solve that is with money, right?” But he finds that unsatisfying. He recalls Confucius, who built a hut near his mother’s grave after she died young, staying nearby for three years. Modern life, however, makes few allowances for such filial piety. In a country where social systems aren’t yet fully developed, he must count on himself.
“One of the hardest parts of my life,” he says, “is being in a situation where I have both children to raise and older parents to care for.”
Yang Benfen, 81
Author, Nanchang, Jiangxi
Once, Yang Benfen dreamed of dying early. Age crept up on her anyway. With it has come new hope. She began to paint flowers and landscapes in her mid-70s. Then she tried her hand at writing, penning her first book, an account of her mother’s life. Now, “I dream of publishing more books. A second book. A third book,” she says.
Writing has become therapy for the mind and a balm for her body. Knee surgery left her with an ache that time has not dulled, the pain so acute it causes her to lose focus. Whenever that happens, she sits down to write.
“When I was young, happiness was a stable job. Now, my biggest happiness is to write down what is on my mind and fashion it into a book I can hold in my hands,” she says. She thrills to the idea of self-expression, and the respect it’s won her from readers, even if it’s not always enough to ease her physical suffering.
“This pain has defeated me,” she says. “For older people, particularly the ones with disease, it’s very easy to feel impatient with life, because it just becomes something not worth living.”
Yet, she declares herself contented. There is pain. But there is also the joy of looking back on life. Her three children attended good universities and have found steady work. Her husband “is quiet and never messes with me. We spend our days together happily,” she says. They have enough money to buy food and clothes. “I don’t know what else I should want,” she says.
Chen Xiaoyu, 46
HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment specialist, Leshan, Sichuan
There are times Chen Xiaoyu feels helpless. He works to help clients who have AIDS in a society where discimination can be harsh. The Chinese government itself tests all civil-service applications for sexually transmitted diseases and automatically culls any who test positive for HIV – a contravention of the country’s own employment laws. Some of his clients suffer severe psychological ailments and do not respond well to treatment. “I can’t save everyone on Earth, right?” Mr. Chen asks. “But I feel my abilities are limited.”
The opposite is also true. Satisfaction lies in helping others: the students whose illness has not blocked their admission to good schools; the people with physical impairments from the disease who nonetheless found work.
In his own life, Mr. Chen has eschewed some of the favoured markers of success. He does not own a car, instead running 10 kilometres a day to the office and back. He would prefer to spend on travel to Thailand, where costs are lower, life easier and the beaches beautiful. For many in China, “now that our food and clothing needs have been met, the only thing to improve is quality of life, right?” he asks. Rather than buy a big house, he has cultivated other interests: yoga, sand painting, tea. But perhaps the greatest joy of all, in a part of China which is famous for its food, lies in the place he grew up. “The happiest thing for me is getting home to see that my mom has cooked food,” he says.
Ma Mengjie, 29
There was little euphoria when Ma Mengjie learned in March that she was pregnant. Instead, she was enveloped by a tangle of emotion. Giving birth would mean reducing her billable work hours and, with that, her income. Meanwhile, expenses would increase. Other worries flooded in: Will her child be healthy? Will there be postbirth problems and will she and her husband be able to handle them? In the past, she would attack anxiety by working to earn more. That may not be possible when her child is born. It has all left her feeling “a little insecure,” she says. She has begun trimming life expectations. Perhaps the home renovation can wait.
Still, optimism undergirds her outlook. Ms. Ma takes it as a given that life for the next generation will be better. “We are not particularly worried. We will work harder and provide a house for the children so they don’t have to worry about this,” she says.
Vulnerability has also brought its own kind of consolation. Her husband has been supportive, and “willing to help me when I am fragile. It’s something that makes me very happy,” she says. They have established common ground on how to raise their child, with neither eager to enter the competitive fray of top schools and after-school tutoring. In Ms. Ma’s work as a therapist, she has found the greatest joy lies in the best of spousal interactions. Now, she is discovering that for herself. “For any person, intimacy is happiness,” she says.
More: A parting view from Beijing
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