Why are the Chinese so sad?

They are four times richer than they were 20 years ago, yet they find their lives lack meaning and direction

Bobby Yip/Reuters

The Chinese have an expression to describe coping with hardship: chi ku—to eat bitterness. The sensation is familiar to Wang Hui, a 50-year-old salesman in Beijing. Wang earns less than $6,000 a year, struggles to put his son through school, and is openly jealous of those around him who have made out better in the new China. A former colleague, for example, who invested in real estate at the right time, now owns four apartments and a Mercedes-Benz.

“I’ve seen so many people get rich so quickly,” says Wang, whose missing bottom tooth and cracked watch seem to accentuate his Willy Loman predicament. “If I worked for 50 years, I wouldn’t make that much money. Of course I’m envious.”

Wang isn’t alone. In fact, he reflects a widespread dissatisfaction in China, one that at first glance might seem counterintuitive. It’s been more than 30 years since Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping opened the country and the Communist party embraced the mantra “to get rich is glorious.” In the decades since, hundreds of millions have been lifted out of poverty. In 2010, China surpassed Japan as the world’s second-largest economy. The Chinese today are four times richer than they were 20 years ago, and people like Wang have opportunities and creature comforts unheard of a generation ago.

But despite China’s economic miracle, recent studies suggest Chinese aren’t any happier than they were in the early 1990s—the result of an income-inequality gap that has grown to a chasm, and demographic trends that have created complicated new realities for millions. These have created increasingly evident pressures, and frustrations are bubbling to the surface. Protests large and small have been growing across the country in recent years—protests against environmental problems, corrupt officials, government land grabs and more. The number of protests doubled to 180,000 “mass incidents” between 2006 and 2010, according to research by the Chinese Academy of Governance. This fall, residents in the coastal city of Ningbo organized through social media, and rallied against the expansion of a chemical plant. A similar protest occurred last year in the prosperous city of Dalian. In 2008, residents of Shanghai successfully fought the expansion of a magnetic-levitation train line, and in late 2011, citizens of Wukan, in Guangdong province, briefly seized control of their village in response to a land grab by corrupt officials.

Protests are happening so frequently in China that further unrest seems inevitable, and this is worrying China’s ruling Communist party, which has long staked its legitimacy on the promise of prosperity through economic growth. While getting rich is still glorious in China today, officials are busy trying to appease a dissatisfied populace by belatedly addressing corruption and the country’s growing list of social and environmental maladies.

According to a study published in May from researchers at the University of Southern California (USC), Chinese people’s life satisfaction actually declined between 1990 and the mid-2000s, a period when gross domestic product and average consumption increased fourfold. The trend rebounded in recent years but is still below 1990 levels, according to the report, which was published in the journal of the National Academy of Sciences.

The USC study drew links to post-Soviet countries where, like China, economic growth corresponded with rising unemployment and the dismantling of social safety nets, which have hit the poor especially hard. The report’s authors argue that the main reason for China’s stagnant life satisfaction is resentment of the haves by the have-nots. The boom times have disproportionately benefited the rich and, while average Chinese have grown wealthier in absolute terms, they feel relatively disadvantaged, especially since wealth is often flaunted in China through material possessions—from Ferraris to Gucci handbags to rare pets. (A coal magnate recently paid a record $1.5 million for a Tibetan mastiff at a dog auction in the port city of Qingdao.) While middle-income earners reported little change in their level of happiness, life satisfaction among low-income earners dropped precipitously.

“The evidence is that the rich-poor gap in life satisfaction in China is quite high relative to most countries,” says Richard Easterlin, an economist at USC who was the lead author of the report. In the 1970s, Easterlin developed what has become known as the “Easterlin paradox,” which suggests economic prosperity makes people happier only to a point.

Other surveys in China have drawn similar conclusions. Last year, a state-owned information portal,, polled 1,350 Chinese and found that only six per cent of respondents described themselves as “very happy,” compared with 48 per cent who were “not happy.” (The results were briefly published online in a story in China Daily, a state-owned newspaper, before censors removed the story from the Internet.) A 2011 Gallup poll ranked China 92nd, near the bottom, on its list of 124 countries where people were asked to assess their well-being. Only 12 per cent of Chinese said they were thriving—the same as in Yemen and Afghanistan.

“My life is not happy,” says Zhou Hao Hao, a 27-year-old lawyer for a state-owned company in Beijing. He half-jokingly describes himself as an “underprivileged loser” and counts himself among an unfortunate member of a growing cohort of young men known in China as the san wu, the “three have-nots”—no apartment, no car, no wife. (Buying an apartment is a particular challenge for young Chinese, with high real estate prices despite a glut of empty apartments, many of which require a cash down payment of up to 50 per cent.) Zhou, who came to Beijing from coastal Shandong province eight years ago, feels pressure from all directions—his parents, himself, society—to acquire all those things and more. Sometimes it seems futile. “I don’t have any clear objectives in life,” he says over coffee in downtown Beijing. “I don’t see a clear path for the future.”

China’s government has taken note of the people’s melancholy, making happiness a key part of the next five-year development plan and promising to tackle non-economic quality-of-life factors such as health care, education, housing and the environment. “Everything we do is aimed at letting people live more happily and with more dignity,” said Premier Wen Jiabao, in his New Year’s address to the nation. He added that officials would be judged on their ability to make people happy. President Xi Jinping pledged at the 18th Party Congress in November to improve citizens’ lives with “better schooling, more stable jobs, more satisfying incomes, more reliable social security, higher levels of health care, more comfortable housing conditions and a more beautiful environment.”

What officials aren’t talking about, however, is that part of what is fuelling resentment is a widespread belief that government is synonymous with corruption. “Besides income inequality, corruption is the biggest factor” contributing to people’s dissatisfaction, says Hu Xingdou, an economics professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology. Hu argues that China has lost its spiritual centre—Confucianism, especially, is a conservative philosophy that guides an individual’s ethical behaviour within a community—and that the quest for wealth has filled the void. “Chinese people don’t believe in anything,” Hu says. “Money worship dominates, and this is the biggest factor contributing to corruption.”

In 2012, China ranked 80th out of 174 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, with Denmark being the least corrupt at No. 1. (By way of comparison, Canada ranked 10th.)

Exacerbating discontent among regular Chinese are profound demographic trends that have transformed Chinese society in recent decades. Some 250 million people have migrated from the countryside to major urban centres. This mass urban migration has strained the family unit, traditionally the centre of social life in China. The one-child policy, now more than 30 years old, has created a generation of only children, many of whom have moved alone to cities to pursue lives and careers.

On the Internet, commentators have adopted the term bei piao—or “Beijing floater”—to describe the legion of young people in the Chinese capital who find their lives lacking in meaning and direction. Lu Peng, a 26-year-old who works in the financial industry, is a self-described bei piao. Like Zhou, the Beijing lawyer, Lu is a san wu, a have-not, and he has struggled to adapt to life in Beijing after a year and a half, often finding himself overcome with feelings of loneliness. On the surface, however, Lu has much going for him. While his parents worked their whole lives in factories in Jiangsu province, he earns almost $24,000 a year. He is likeable and working on improving his social life, but still reports an overall feeling of discontent. “I’m struggling,” he says.

A 2009 paper in the Journal of Happiness Studies, titled “The China puzzle: Falling happiness in a rising economy,” described people like Lu and Zhou as “frustrated achievers,” those who are prospering but who don’t necessarily feel they are. They are doing far better than previous generations, but because they see others doing much better, they feel less satisfied with their lives. Today, suicide is a leading cause of death among young people.

Urban women are also not immune from the stresses of modern Chinese society. Much pressure is placed on women to marry wealthy men and promptly produce a child; ambition and success are often frowned upon. In 2007, China’s Women’s Federation defined the term “leftover” women (sheng nu) as unmarried women over the age of 27, an increasingly stigmatized group. According to a 2010 Women’s Federation survey, more than 90 per cent of male respondents said women should marry before the age of 27 or risk a loveless life.

“In this society, you should be married and have kids while you’re young,” says Yang, a sheng nu in Beijing who works in public relations and gave her age as “around 30.” (She asked that her surname not be published.) Yang says many men she meets find her too old to marry. She doesn’t want to settle for someone she’s not satisfied with, but feels pressure from parents and peers to enter into a relationship soon. “When I meet new people, they feel weird around me because I’m single.”

There is some positive news, however. Gao Wei, a sociology professor from China Youth University for Political Sciences, who has conducted research on happiness in China since 2008, says Chinese born after 1990, in particular, are learning that life is about more than just earning a buck. “Post-’90s Chinese care more about their quality of life, leisure time and work-life balance rather than money,” Gao says. “This is a good trend.” Many Chinese are also looking for spiritual meaning beyond the pursuit of wealth and material possessions. Confucianism and Taoism have both undergone revivals here in recent years and a growing number of Chinese are turning to Buddhism, which has an estimated 300 million followers in China, for spiritual guidance.

For now, however, resentment rules for Wang Hui, the Beijing salesman. He’s tried praying to Buddha, too, but it hasn’t worked so far. Wang dreams of one day opening a small restaurant and of taking up his passion—painting—once again. But he recognizes those dreams will likely remain just dreams. He’s resigned to continue eating bitterness. “There’s nothing I can do,” he says. “Real life is cruel.”