Survey: China is richer, but not happier

China correspondent Rob Schmitz discusses results from a survey that finds more money does not equal more happiness in China.

Kai Ryssdal: There's a decent amount of conversation in this country about the wealth gap. Occupy Wall Street, 1 percent, the 99 percent, tax the rich -- it's a pretty steady subtext to a lot of the political debate nowadays. They're having the same conversation over in China despite -- or maybe because of -- the way that economy's been growing. A study out of the University of Southern California earlier this month says Chinese people aren't as happy today as they were a couple decades ago. Marketplace's Rob Schmitz is on the line from Shanghai. Hey Rob.

Rob Schmitz: Hey Kai.

Ryssdal: So what gives? More money does not equal more happiness over there?

Schmitz: No, apparently not. I think what's important here is that this study starts with how happy the Chinese were in 1990. Well back in 1990, China actually operated like a Socialist country. Most everyone had a job back then -- you were either a farmer or you worked for a state-owned company. But the state took care of you. You had lifetime benefits. But what's important to understand back then is you had equally dismal pay. It was rare to know anyone who had a lot of money, so in some ways it was hard to be unhappy because everyone you knew was all in the same boat.

Ryssdal: Yeah, and as we now know that's definitely not the case over there.

Schmitz: No. Today's China is flush with cash. These days you can make it rich, but you can also really struggle. That economic uncertainty impacts how people feel here.

Ryssdal: All right. So you went out and you did a little reporting, a little informal, unscientific survey. What'd you find?

Schmitz: Yeah, I went out and talked to a lot of people on the sidewalk about how happy they are about their own economic growth. The first guy I spoke to is Ray Chen. He's 30 years old, works at an import/export business, born in Shanghai, and he just returned from six years in Canada. Now he's back. He wants to marry his girlfriend, but he's still living with his parents. The only property he can afford is two hours away from his downtown office.

Ray Chen: I want to buy a house in downtown, but the price is too high. Cannot afford it actually right now.

Schmitz: So what are you going to do?

Chen: I'm going to stay with my parents, postpone my marriage with my girlfriend, so we have to stay separately right now.

Ryssdal: We talked about that when I was there last year. Everything is becoming more and more expensive. Inflation is a huge problem.

Schmitz: Yeah. Everything is rising more than household incomes -- that's not a good economic formula for happiness.

Ryssdal: No. But it is a formula for people making money though, right? Somebody's making money.

Schmitz: Right. Developers are obviously making a lot of money. And of course the government of China itself is getting rich and that's something that irks a lot of the people I spoke to. In the past five years, much of China's economic growth has come from building infrastructure. The party has spent hundreds of billions of dollars on this and most of these contracts have gone to state-owned companies. So in other words, the government is giving money to itself. So one man I spoke to was really frustrated with this.

Man speaking

Ryssdal: "Nothing's OK," right? Everything is not all right.

Schmitz: Nothing is OK. So he's saying that the Communist party originated from the poor, but now has basically left the poor behind. He's a security guard who makes $5 a day and he lives in a 30-square-foot apartment with his wife and his daughter and he isn't happy at all. So I asked him. I said how could the government improve the situation in China. And so get this, he said that China should start a war.

Ryssdal: No, come on. Really?

Schmitz: Yeah. And I said with whom and he said it doesn't matter. He said a war would reduce China's population, which he thought was the country's biggest problem. This is about as cynical as you could get, but it's not really the first time that I've heard this from people here. It's extreme, but I mention it because I think it's evidence that some people on the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder in China are beginning to become desparate about this widening gap between the rich and the poor, and between those who have power and those who don't. And they're really angry about the injustice of it all. And like I said before, this is not a good economic formula for happiness.

Ryssdal: Yeah. And you don't hear a lot about those people on the lowest rung.

Schmitz: You don't, but they're out there and they're not too happy.

Ryssdal: Rob Schmitz in Shanghai. Thanks Rob.

Schmitz: Thanks Kai.

About the author

Rob Schmitz is Marketplace’s China correspondent in Shanghai.

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