Expert Commentary

China’s life satisfaction, 1990-2010

2012 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on declining life satisfaction and discontent over time in China.

China has experienced unprecedented economic growth over the past 20 years, with some reports estimating that China’s per capita GDP and consumption each increased by a factor of four between 1990 and 2010. Surveys of Chinese citizens suggest, however, that the quality of life in China has not increased by the same magnitude as the country’s economy.

A 2012 study from the University of Southern California published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “China’s Life Satisfaction, 1990-2010,” analyzes data from six surveys administered by five separate organizations to describe the trend in residents’ subjective well-being during the country’s transition from socialism to capitalism. The surveys were administered between 1990-2010, and each had a sample size between 1,000 and 5,000 people. While the exact questions vary by survey, well-being was measured by recording respondents’ “self-reported feelings of satisfaction with life.”

The study’s findings include:

  • No evidence was found of a significant improvement in life satisfaction in China between 1990 and 2010, a finding that runs contrary to international comparisons, which show that “life satisfaction and GDP per capita are significantly positively correlated.”
  • Life satisfaction in China between 1990 and 2010 formed a “U-shaped pattern,” reaching a low in the period of 2000-2005.
  • As measured by life satisfaction, China has become increasingly unequal since 1990. The wealthier and more educated Chinese have experienced an increase in levels of life satisfaction during the country’s transition to capitalism, while the satisfaction of those who are lower-income and less well educated has declined significantly. The authors note that prior to 1990, China was “one of the most egalitarian countries” as measured by life satisfaction.
  • China’s pattern of life satisfaction during this period is similar to that of the former Soviet states as they transitioned out of communism, with an initial decrease in life satisfaction, followed by an upswing. The final upswing, however, has not brought China’s life satisfaction level back to its pre-1990 level.

The authors note that the six surveys used in the study “show a remarkably consistent pattern.” Despite the vast growth in China’s per capita GDP and consumption in the past 20 years, the decline in life satisfaction — and in particular among the lower-income Chinese population — shows that “job and income security, together with a social safety net, are of critical importance to life satisfaction.” Overall, the study concludes that “in its transition, China has shifted from one of the most egalitarian countries in terms of distribution of life satisfaction to one of the least egalitarian.”

A related 2012 report from the Pew Global Attitudes Project finds that Chinese are increasingly concerned about inequality, corruption and the lack of social mobility.

Tags: Asia

About The Author