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Folks, are you happy with your lot?
By Raymond Zhou (China Daily)
Updated: 2004-12-16 10:22

While China's economy gallops at a breakneck speed, Chinese people are adjusting to it at a more leisurely pace.

Farmer musicians from Guanyinqiao Village of Hubei Province's Yidu City give a performance to entertain themselves and fellow villagers. Rural residents list quality of leisure life as the fourth most important indicator of their overall contentment. [newsphot]

A new quality-of-life survey has found that both urban and rural residents are generally - and slightly - more content with their lives than they used to be.

This may sound like a cliche, but the study does shed interesting light on what's on the mind of the general population, especially those who don't get much chance to rave or whine in the media.

The survey divides satisfaction - or the lack of it - into five degrees, with the number 5 assigned to "extremely satisfied with your life," 4 to "generally satisfied," 3 to "neutral," 2 to "generally dissatisfied" and 1 to "extremely dissatisfied."

For the past five years, during which time the study was conducted annually, the average response, excluding those who refused to respond or said "not clear," has always fallen somewhere between 3 and 4, or "neutral" and "generally satisfied." But this number has been edging up from 3.42 last year to 3.53.

But it is interesting to note that the majority of respondents, at least 60 per cent of them, have always chosen "generally satisfied" as the most appropriate description of their lives. Taken together, lumping the two "satisfied" categories into one, and the two "dissatisfied" into another, and extrapolating the data to the whole country, a positive picture has emerged: 66.9 per cent of the population are living happily in contrast with 20.5 per cent who go around with gloomy faces.

The study was conducted in October by the Horizon Research Consultancy Group, a Beijing-based polling firm. A total of 3,010 urban residents, ranging from 18 to 60 in age, were sampled in seven major cities and seven small towns, and another 849 rural residents, aged 16 through 60, were sampled in eight rural areas. The margin of error is plus or minus 1.77 per cent.

A report of the study is included in the "Blue Book of China's Society: Analysis and Forecast on China's Social Development (2005)," which has just been published by the Social Sciences Academic Press.

Rural bliss?

Much of the results from the survey correspond to the public perception. For example, degrees of education and levels of income go hand in hand with satisfaction. Of all urban residents, those with college education or higher are 72.9 per cent satisfied and 17.8 per cent dissatisfied with their lives; and of those with 5,001 yuan (US$605) monthly household income, 76.9 per cent are happy and only 15.8 per cent unhappy.

By contrast, 34.5 per cent of those with elementary schooling or lower and 48.5 per cent of those earning less than 800 yuan (US$97) a month, are not satisfied with their state of living.

In rural areas, high income also tends to induce high levels of satisfaction.

But high education can have some side effects. The study shows that those who attended high schools, vocational schools or technical schools have scored the highest, while those with three-year college education or higher are among the lowest in terms of self-perception of well-being. It may carry the implication that highly educated people are not fulfilling their ambitions or finding the countryside a constraint on their talent.

Poor yet happily ignorant

The most shocking discovery is rural residents are, on the whole, more complacent about their lives than city slickers - despite the recognized urban-rural discrepancy in income. Specifically, for the year 2004, 69.7 per cent of rural residents vs 62 per cent of urbanites are happy whereas 17 per cent of rural residents vs 26.5 per cent of urbanites are categorized as unhappy. On the five-point scale of aggregate data, rural has scored an average of 3.59 while urban is lower at 3.36.

When this part of the research was mentioned in a Beijing newspaper on Monday, in a highly abridged form, reader feedback has been one of disbelief and sarcasm. On Sina's online forum, so-called netizens tend to attribute the income-satisfaction disconnect to ignorance. The most common reaction is the proverbial "poor but blissfully ignorant about it."

Applicants search for positions at a job market organized by local district governments in Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu Province. Both rural and urban residents list job contenetment as the second most important indicator in the survey of degrees of satisfaction. [newsphoto]

This rationale may have some truth in it. According to Zeng Huichao, researcher in charge of this project at Horizon Research, wealth certainly contributes a lot to a carefree and easy life, but one's perception is often based on comparisons with those living in the same area. A farmer, in other words, can have the pressure of "catching up with the Zhangs," but if the Zhangs are a family of a faraway metropolis, rather than one down the dirt road, it has little impact on him.

However, when one looks closer at the "tea leaves," the finer details, one may find something more revealing. Comparative data show satisfaction levels of urbanites have hovered from 3.27 in 2000, 3.28 in 2001, 3.33 in 2002, 3.26 in 2003 and 3.38 in 2004 while the rural level has shown a consistent ascendance, from 3.22 in 2000, 3.50 in 2001, 3.56 in 2002, 3.48 in 2003 and 3.59 in 2004.

"It is an indication that the central government's agriculture-oriented policy is working," says Li Peilin, sociologist with the Sociology Institute of China Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). "The rising prices of farm products have raised farming income across the board and this is evidence that farmers are benefiting from it."

"The uptick definitely has something to do with the 11.4 per cent year-on-year increase in farming income during the first three quarters of this year," confirms Zeng.

Professor Li explains that researchers from his institute went to great lengths to account for the broad-based dip for 2003. "We organized focus groups and found that rising prices contributed most to last year's noticeable dwindling in good feelings about life. Although overall prices rose only about 3 per cent, food prices, which disproportionately affect the lower classes, shot up 6-7 per cent," he contends.

Li adds that, for all the consumer price hikes this year, the public was more prepared psychologically, and most importantly, the farming sector, instead of suffering, actually profited from this, which, to a great extent, offset the grumbles.

According to this study, fluctuation in consumer prices is the number one factor affecting an urbanite's perception of a good life. It is followed, in order, by profession, personal income, perception of the nation's direction and leisure activities.

For the average rural resident, the factors with the highest impact are slightly different: in the right sequence profession, price fluctuation, leisure activities, social network and personal income.

It is surprising that money did not make it into the top three factors in either case.

Another finding that defies or disturbs common sense is in the age bracket. The survey concludes that, for urbanites, the highest-satisfaction age groups are 56-60 year-olds, which recorded 70.6 per cent satisfied and 16 per cent dissatisfied, and the 16-25 year-olds, with 69.4 per cent satisfied and 19.4 per cent dissatisfied.

China's retirement age is 60 for men and 55 for women. The retired may feel they are made useless by fast changing times. They tend to have fond memories of "good old days" and complain about what the younger generations are engaged in. Those laid off from industrial restructuring may not even get their promised pensions, analyses Lu Jianhua, another professor with CASS.

Professor Lu continues that the young are another disgruntled lot. They grew up in an increasingly market economy, facing intense competition in education and employment. Even when one gets a good job with a private or foreign funded company, it does not mean he or she is guaranteed an iron-rice bowl. It only means competition has been racketed up a notch.

This generation has a heightened awareness of wealth, yet many of them feel they are unfairly thrust into a jungle of uncertainty, as can be witnessed by numerous online postings, says Lu.

Both Lu Jianhua and Li Peilin are puzzled by the findings that show the young and the old as a happy lot. But Ceng Huichao emphasizes that the young of that age, in Chinese tradition, have not really cut their moorings to their parents and have not been caught in the vortex of career trappings. They are also the group that has reported the highest degree of "pleasantness" as to their state of mind. And the old, in a starkly similar way, are back in the embrace of familial bliss without the back-breaking burden of supporting it. The research data, therefore, belie the phenomenon of whining kids and grumpy old people.

Hidden threat

Two police officers attend a report meeting on December 1, where Zhang Xiaolai, head of a police substation, reports to residents from the community in Er'longlu, Xicheng District in Beijing. Public safety is found to be the common concern of both rural and urban residents. [newsphoto]
The challenges of life exert themselves in different ways. Urban residents in the 26-45 age bracket have the lowest level of satisfaction and highest of dissatisfaction. For rural residents, this is limited to the 26-35 age group.

This may attest to fierce competition in the job market. Correspondingly, urban job satisfaction, which is rated by the survey, has dropped from 3.41 for 2003 to 3.26. It is only natural that, over the past four years, unemployment and job creation have remained the number one concern for urban dwellers.

There is a potential good-news bad-news facet on the sentiment metre of this study. The good news is, more people have positive sentiments, such as joy and peace; and the bad news is, more people, too, have negative ones, such as anxiety and tension. The shrinking part is the "neutral" segment, which, according to this measure, declined from 23.9 per cent last year to 17.2 per cent.

"This may hint at a widening gulf in public sentiments," interprets Professor Li Peilin. But the overall movement of the indicators, which is upward and steady, shows that the Chinese people are positive about the future.

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