Monday, August 04, 2008

In contrast to US, Chinese more satisfied with country than with own personal lives

++Addition++Pat Buchanan's recent article on the same subject is here. He raises the interesting question of how democratic capitalism will fare going forward against its most potent rival, autocratic capitalism.


At Parapundit, Randall Parker has recently been churning out several posts dealing with the continued rise of China. As US exceptionalism fades away and the world's epicenter shifts back to Asia, Chinese public opinion will have an increasingly stronger influence on what takes place in the world. A Pew survey ahead of the Olympics reveals a few things worth thinking about.

In contrast to the US, the Chinese public is more optimistic nationally than it is on the individual level. When asked if they were satisfied with the direction their country is moving, 82% of Chinese respondents said they were. Personal satisfaction is also high--81% expressed satisfaction with family life, 64% with their jobs, and 58% with their income--but still lower than national satisfaction is.

In the US, Harris shows that fewer than one in four (23%) report feel optimistic about where their country is headed. Yet more than three in four (76%) say things in their own personal lives are headed in the right direction. The opening sentence of the Harris report captures this sentiment:

The closer to home one gets, the more likely people are to think things are going pretty well.

I suspect some of the perceived pessimism on the national level has to do with political partisanship. Nearly half of Republicans (45%) think the US is on the right track, while only 14% of Democrats and independents do. If Obama is elected, the Republican and Democratic numbers will probably swap spots. Without cultural and political schisms perpetually featured in Chinese media, personal ideology doesn't influence the perception of national prosperity near as strongly as it does in the West.

Why else do the different patterns of satisfaction exist in China as compared to the US? Given where they are now and we're they'll be in ten, twenty, and fifty years down the road, the Chinese have objective reasons to be more positive than Americans do. Are the contrasts between Chinese collectivism and US 'rugged individualism' also explanatory? That is, the individual and the collective are linked closely from a Chinese perspective, whereas the American take is that I know what's best for me and am able to take care of myself, but the bureaucracies always screw things up.

A couple of other interesting bits from the Pew survey of China:

- The Chinese have bought into market capitalism. By a 5-to-2 ratio, the Chinese believe people are better off in free market systems (than centrally-controlled economies presumably, although the actual question (Q11ba) doesn't explicity state an alternative).

- Although the percentage has decreased as China has grown, 77% still assert that children must learn English to succeed in the world. No word yet on what Senator Obama thinks about that.


al fin said...

Opinion polls in China are not likely to provide the same quality of information as a high quality opinion poll in the US or Canada.

Anonymous said...

I live in Beijing and while it isn't the case that the Chinese have no idea about anything going on in their country, news here doesn't focus on negatives at all. That affects the overall perception of how things are going and skews it to the positive on a national level.

It's also true that things are going well for a lot of people over here, but as you can see by reading between the lines, there are a lot of problems as well. This is a very low trust society and people get screwed all the time. The story is complicated here.

Lord Vader said...

"As US exceptionalism fades away and the world's epicenter shifts back to Asia, Chinese public opinion will have an increasingly stronger influence on what takes place in the world."

The US may or may not fade, by why do people assume China is going to be the major world power?

Yes China is increasing in wealth, but China was very wealthy and militarily powerful during the Ming Dynasty. Yet, they never achieved the cultural and scientific domination Europe did. In fact, China once sent a fleet to Africa and was in a postion to colonize Africa but never bothered.

For some reason, China seems insular in terms of creativity and global ambitions which raises questions about how influential will ultimately become. The question "Why Asia Lags" needs to be answered before we can predict what course China will take in the future.

Audacious Epigone said...


Obtaining a representative sample in China must be harder than in the developed, more transparent West. But the national optimism expressed in the survey is overwhelming, especially when compared to the pessimism expressed in the US.


The story is complicated here.

I understand. I'm not trying to oversimplify. Is the national outlook expressed by the public in Beijing as optimistic as the Pew survey insinuates?

Lord Vader,

If the US does fade, seems to me that it's either China that rises or no country does. Do you foresee any other country or civilization (in the Huntington sense) rising substantially over the next several decades? Maybe India, but China has major advantages over its southern neighbor. The fortunes of Russia and the Middle East are both tied to commodities, and virtually all the problems that the US faces going forward are accentuated in Europe (top-heavy age demographics, TFR below replenishment, a growing underclass hostile to Western liberalism).

Lord Vader said...


I think the world will return to a 19th Century balance of power system where various stong - but not overwhelmingly powerful - nations have various advantages and disadvantages compared to other countries.

Because every country will have some weakness preventing one nation from dominating the globe completely, each country will be forced into various complex alliances to make up for any national weakness, which is exactly what happened in the century before WWI.

Karl said...

That was my comment above. I live in Beijing so only know city people and the more successful of the countryside folks. When I say it's complicated I don't mean it can't be understood, just that whenever you're trying to figure out a country like China with thriving Ferrari dealerships in Shanghai and peasants who can't afford a bus ticket to the next town, any generalizations are going to end up falling flat.

I think that survey reflects the mood pretty well. You'd have to be blind not to see how much better things are getting for lots of people in China, but there is a lot of grumbling about how people are treated by the government, police, companies and so on.

So in answer, yes the survey rings true, at least to this American in China. Things really are going well in a very general sense and people's lives and the lives of their friends and family are getting better as well, however there are a lot of problems on the other side of the ledger which is reflected in people's response about their personal life.

Audacious Epigone said...

LV and Karl,

Thanks for expounding, it is appreciated.

blue said...

Do you foresee any other country or civilization (in the Huntington sense) rising substantially over the next several decades?

Maybe India...

No, no, no, no, no. How can people even think such a thing?

Audacious Epigone said...


I'm not at all optimistic on India's chances of dominating Asia with China underfoot. But India, Taiwan, Japan, and (potentially, although the Bush administration seems intent on pushing the two together, not against one another) Russia are going to box China in to varying extents.

Dragon Horse said...

You don't know much about China.

This Pew Poll was taken in urban areas of the East where the country is prosperous and people much more educated than average. They are in no way representative of the average Chinese person demographically.

Most Chinese live in rural areas.

I also question how it was taken, I can imagine if it was given in a rural area or smaller town many people would not answer truthfully because they would fear it is a trap by local cadre to identify troublemakers.

Where urban Eastern cities are as developed as major cities in Southeast Asia, or more so the rural areas even in China proper (not getting out to the minority dominent Western areas) are often very poor, where people live on $2 a day and have to struggle to live while getting robbed by local cadre.

If you want more info on "China Stuck in Transition..." by Dr. Minxin Pei. I would seriously suggest you read it. It is not to say China won't be a superpower in the next 50 years. Pei thinks they can (he was born on the Mainland and did an undergrad at Shanghai Foreign Studies University...I studied abroad there myself). He just details all the major structural problems that China has that could cause it to experience stagnation (he doesn't think it will collapses).

Anon is also right about how the censorship in the news skews things. I was just in Beijing in May and I can tell you the TV highly censored.

Audacious Epigone said...


The survey covers about half of China's population. It breaks up population density into three categories: City, Town, and Rural.

Rural respondents are the most likely of the three to say people are better off in free market systems. They are also the most likely to say they like "modern life" and the least likely to feel that "traditional ways are getting lost". They are a bit less likely to say they're satisfied with their own family lives than city-dwellers are (81% to 84%), but more likely to say so than those in towns (77%) (see page 26+ of the full report). Also, they are (by a marginal amount) the most likely to express satisfaction with the Chinese government.

How high is the level of coercion? Four of five claim to be positive on the direction of the country. Is it really only two of five? So 400 million or so are too afraid to give honest answers to market researchers who are ensuring anonymity of respondents?

I bought my house two years ago by investing in China. I'm comfortable with my financial understanding of the place, and I continue to be more bullish than many in my industry. But culturally, I'm an amateur.