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China, Development, Globalization

China’s life satisfaction, 1990-2010

Shanghai street (Wikimedia)
Shanghai street (Wikimedia)

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

    Writer: | Last updated: November 29, 2012

    Citation: Easterlin, Richard A.; Morgan, Robson; Switek, Malgorzata; Wang, Fei. PNAS, June 19, 2012, vol. 109, no. 25, 9775–9780. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1205672109.

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    Analysis assignments

    Read the issue-related Wall Street Journal article titled "China's Inequality Gini Out of the Bottle."

    1. What key insights from the news article and the study in this lesson should reporters be aware of as they cover these issues?

    Read the full study titled “China’s Life Satisfaction, 1990-2010.”

    1. What are the study's key technical term(s)? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
    2. Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
    3. What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
    4. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
    5. How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.

    Newswriting and digital reporting assignments

    1. Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
    2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
    3. Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
    4. Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
    5. Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
    6. Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.

    Class discussion questions

    1. What is the study’s most important finding?
    2. Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
    3. What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
    4. How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
    5. How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
    6. What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?