In China, to Get Rich Is Not So Glorious

Income gaps, killer commutes—successful Chinese live the stressful life
Pedestrians in Hong Kong Photograph by Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

In the course of a U.S. presidential campaign, the American public is bombarded with surveys asking voters to rank the relative importance of various issues, and whether they think the country is overall on the right track. Not so in China, where another leadership transition has just concluded, with the 18th Party Congress choosing Xi Jinping to succeed Hu Jintao as party secretary now and, in March, as president of China.

But a handful of recent studies do give some insight into public sentiment in the world’s second-largest economy on the eve of its once-in-a-decade leadership transition. The upshot: More wealth buys more cars and handbags, but not necessarily happiness—and white-collar workers in China’s fast-changing economy are the most likely in the world to say they’re more stressed out this year than last. Overall life satisfaction has declined since 1990.

“Sometimes I feel like I am driving down an expressway, speeding from one place to another, but I forgot the reason and I do not know the final destination,” says Rebecca Jiang, a 29-year-old civil servant. The petite woman, sipping a fruit smoothie at a teahouse, in many ways seems to be living the modern Chinese dream: Jiang moved from her hometown in Anhui province to Beijing for college in 2002; she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from respected universities, scored well on the highly competitive civil-servant exam, and in June got married. Yet these achievements have not erased the gnawing feeling that she is racing just to stay in place: “I do not have the time or energy to enjoy the scenery. Maybe it is about my personal goals: I am so busy I do not know what I really like, who I want to be. I am just traveling around. I am speeding even.”

Money is one source of stress. Home prices have quadrupled in a decade in Beijing, but salaries haven’t risen so fast. “My parents and my husband’s parents had to spend all their savings to buy us an apartment,” says Jiang. It’s out near the Sixth Ring Road—the capital’s outermost perimeter—and is a 90-minute to three-hour drive into central Beijing, depending on traffic. They bought it secondhand and paid 2 million RMB, or about $317,000.

She and her husband, who works for a multinational company, are keeping up with the rising costs and complexities of life in the crowded megacity—but just barely, she says. “We are too tired to talk in the evenings. We just go to bed, so we can get up early and do it again.” As for her job: “It is not so good as I thought it would be. Sometimes I have to work like a robot. You have to do what you are told to do, not what you think you should do.”

Recently the Beijing Academy of Social Sciences conducted a survey asking residents of China’s capital whether their quality of life had greatly improved, slightly improved, remained the same, or declined over the period 2005 to 2011. One-fifth of respondents said it had improved slightly, but two-fifths said it had declined. (Only 1 percent said life had improved greatly.)

“The fast changes in China as well as the uncertainties about the future create great psychological pressures,” says Peking University sociologist Xia Xueluan. “Happiness does not merely depend on wealth.” He adds: “For migrant workers, their major pressure is to keep up with costs of living, while for the urban white-collar workers, their major pressure is competition: extreme competition for promotion and recognition.”

Regus, a U.K.-based office-space company, this year polled white-collar workers around the globe and asked whether respondents agreed with the statement “My stress levels have risen in the past year.” The country with the highest proportion of “yes” respondents was China, by a significant margin: 75 percent. (No. 2 was Germany, at 58 percent.) Seventy-three percent of respondents in China said their job was a major source of stress.

In October, the Pew Global Attitudes Project released its survey results for China. Half of respondents said that corrupt officials were now a “very big problem” and 48 percent said the gap between rich and poor was. (In 2008, the responses to the same questions were, respectively, 39 percent and 41 percent.) Among Pew’s most arresting findings was identifying a widespread belief that China’s system creates not only inequality of wealth, but also inequality of opportunity. Nearly 8 in 10 respondents agreed with this statement: The “rich just get richer while the poor get poorer.”

“This country has a very unbalanced income structure, and for young working people it’s getting tougher and tougher to make a living” in the leading cities, says Han Cheng, a researcher with an international NGO in Beijing. As he sees it, the country’s meritocratic promise is waning: “Before, everyone was equally poor and unprivileged. But now there is a privileged class, and for people in that class, there are so many ways for them to receive benefits from their family.”

Richard A. Easterlin, an economist at the University of Southern California, in April published a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on “life satisfaction” in China over the past two decades. Even as incomes have risen for all socioeconomic groups, he found that the percentage of people reporting their life satisfaction was “good or very good” had declined markedly from 1990 to 2007 for those of low and moderate incomes, while ticking slightly upward for China’s richest.

“One may reasonably ask, how it is possible for life satisfaction not to improve in the face of such a marked advance in per capita GDP from a very low initial level?” Easterlin wrote. “In answer it is pertinent to note the growing evidence of the importance of relative income comparisons and material aspirations in China, which tend to negate the effect of rising income.” In other words, money alone doesn’t bring happiness—having more money than your neighbor might.

Comparing her life to her cousin in her small hometown, Jiang expresses mixed feelings. Her cousin lives just a five-minute walk from her office, works fewer hours, and has a larger apartment for less money. “Sometimes I wonder why I stay in Beijing,” she reflects. But then, after a moment, she points out that if she has a child, living in China’s capital will “give him the chance to start life on a much bigger stage.” Of course, she quickly adds that she isn’t sure she wants a child—“it’s very expensive and takes a lot of energy; public kindergarten slots are hard to get and private ones are very costly. I’m expected to have a child, but I’m just not sure.”

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