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China’s Economic Growth Not Matched by Social Gains

China’s unprecedented economic growth over the past 40 years hasn’t produced comparable improvements in the health and education of its people, a United Nations report on global development said.

China, while first in economic expansion since 1970, ranks 79th out of 135 nations in increasing life expectancy and adding years of schooling in that period, according to the UN’s Human Development Report 2010 released today in New York.

“The economy grew at a phenomenal 8 percent a year for three decades, and monetary poverty measures fell more than 80 percent between 1981 and 2005,” the report said. “Yet this success was not matched by performance in other dimensions of human development.”

The gap, according to the UN analysis, stems from China’s “single minded pursuit of economic growth,” often at the expense of delivery of social services.

“Slow progress was associated with decentralizing the financing of basic services without providing adequate national support or increasing the fees levied on families,” the report said. “Public social services deteriorated and in some places even collapsed.”

The 227-page report ranks nations using a “Human Development Index” that combines figures on income per capita, life expectancy and years of schooling. Norway is first, followed by Australia, New Zealand, the U.S. and Ireland. China ranked 89th.

Casting Doubt

The 20th Human Development Report, which focused on trends over the past four decades, says the “evidence does cast doubt on whether economy-wide income growth is instrumental in furthering health and education at low and medium levels of human development.”

Examples in addition to China of countries whose rapid economic growth hasn’t translated into similar gains in education and health include India, Malaysia and Vietnam.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in remarks accompanying the release of the report, said it makes the case that governments should focus on social goals in addition to economic targets.

Improving People’s Lives

The report says “governments should not pursue growth for its own sake, but for improving people’s lives,” Ban said. “Economic growth matters, but what matters more is giving each individual a better chance at a long, healthy and productive life.”

“We have to do more than generate resources, we have to distribute them better, so that education, medical care, clean water, decent jobs and human rights protections reach the millions of people who struggle without these fundamental necessities,” Ban said.

China is one of only 10 countries to have lower school enrollment than they did in 1970, with China at 68 percent currently, compared with 69 percent in 1970, according to the report.

“In 1970, a baby born in Tunisia could expect to live 54 years; one born in China, 62 years,” the report said. “Life expectancy in Tunisia has risen to 74 years, a year longer than that of China. So while China’s per capita income grew almost three times as fast as Tunisia’s, Tunisia’s life expectancy grew twice as fast as China’s. It also significantly outperformed China on the education front.”

Communist Orthodoxy

China couldn’t match social development to its income growth as Communist orthodoxy gave way to a more market-based economy in the past 20 years, according to Rohinton Medhora, vice president of the Ottawa, Canada-based International Development Resource Center.

“Their income growth has been so spectacular it is not surprising that education and health services are lagging,” Medhora said in an interview. “Access to health and education is not as automatic as it used to be. Everyone used to get the same low level. Now some individuals can get really good levels of education and health and others are destitute.”

China’s mission to the UN didn’t respond to a request for a comment on the report.

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