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Know The Reason For China’s Low and Falling Ranking on the UN World Happiness Report

"China has gone from being one of the most egalitarian countries in the world in terms of life satisfaction to one of the least.”

Two tourists from China walking along a road in central Bangkok, Feb. 7, 2019.
Two tourists from China walking along a road in central Bangkok, Feb. 7, 2019. RFA

China’s relatively low ranking in the most recent United Nations-sponsored World Happiness Report puzzles some experts.

Residents of more than 150 countries were asked how satisfied they are with their lives.

China ranked 86 out of the 156 countries, down seven places from the previous year.

As The Economist magazine noted, this placed China, “below Russia and even war-torn Libya.”

But one can think of a number of reasons why the Chinese, on average, ought to feel happy about their lives.

The middle class has been growing. Many Chinese can afford overseas travel as never before.

When I was assigned to cover China in the mid-1980s, many people were still riding bicycles. Now record numbers are driving cars. And Chinese tech companies are pushing to take the lead in the development of artificial intelligence.

As the Lowy Institute, a respected Australian think tank, noted, China’s Gross National Product (GNP) has multiplied five times in the past 30 years, but China’s reported levels of wellbeing are lower today than in 1990.

In 1990 China’s levels of happiness were high for what was then a relatively poor country.

Air pollution contributing to today’s unhappiness

Air pollution could be bad in Beijing when I reported from there from 1985 to 1990, due partly to the smog drifting in from an iron and steel plant, which was eventually closed.

I got a bad case of bronchitis out of it. But no one thought at the time that it was shortening lives the way it appears to be doing now, not only in Beijing but also in other Chinese cities.

And all of the cars on the road, once regarded as a sign of progress, are creating more smog as well as gridlock.

According to a 2015 study by the nonprofit Berkeley Earth, air pollution in China was already causing nearly one in five premature deaths a few years age. That’s more than 4,000 per day. That no doubt makes some people less than joyous.

A migrant worker sits next to his belonging against a wall displaying a Chinese government propaganda message at the Beijing railway station in Beijing, Monday, Jan. 21, 2019. China’s economic growth hit a three-decade low in 2018, adding to pressure on Beijing to beef up stimulus measures and settle a tariff war with Washington. (AP Photo/Andy Wong) RFA

How to measure happiness

Gallup, Inc. participated in the U.N. World Happiness Report through its annual global surveys. Gallup asked people around the world how their lives are going. The U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network then compiled the findings in the Happiness Report.

The Canadian Institute for Advanced Research provided statistical analysis.

A group of independent experts wrote individual country reports.

The U.N. Sustainable Development Network produced The World Happiness Report 2019 in partnership with the Italian-based Ernesto Illy Foundation.

This latest report ranks 117 countries on, among other things, the happiness of their immigrants, including migrants from other countries as well internal migrants.

The report documents the widespread unhappiness of an estimated more than 250,000 Chinese workers in cities who have migrated there from rural areas. They work at insecure, poorly paid jobs and lack benefits, such as insurance. Their children can’t study in city schools.

On April 24, the Financial Times reported that a plan to demolish nearly 25 million homes in designated “slum” areas in China over the past four years has been straining local government finances.

This means that some of the migrant workers who have spent their meager savings to build small, often makeshift homes will get no compensation for their homes’ destruction.

Taiwan now ranks as Asia’s happiest country

In contrast with China’s relatively low ranking in the World Happiness Report, Taiwan has risen seven places, making it number 26 on the list.

Based on the U.N. report, Taiwan can now be considered Asia’s happiest country.

Taiwan’s per capita GDP is roughly three times higher than China’s, but this might not be the only factor explaining its high ranking, according to the Lowy Institute report on the subject.

It says that from what are called longitudinal studies, or research gathered from the same group of individuals over a period of time, we know that the tolerance of “out-groups” and a society’s level of democracy are “strong predictors of happiness.”

The status of women might also be a factor in Taiwan’s favor, the Lowy report says.

Taiwan has a female president and a record number of women legislators that places it far above the international average.

At the top of the list

Not surprisingly perhaps, prosperous European countries dominated the top of the list in the World Happiness Report for 20190

Finland ranked as number one, followed by Norway, Denmark, Iceland, and Switzerland.

The United States came in 18th, down four places from the previous year.

As U.S. News put it, “the U.S., it appears, is getting richer but not happier.”

This leads us to consider what has been described as “the Easterlin Paradox.”

Richard Easterlin, a professor of economics at the University of Southern California, wrote the chapter in the Happiness Report on China.

His views were summed up in an article written for USC News by Suzanne Wu.

Based on a new study, Easterlin concludes that paradoxically, despite an unprecedented rate of economic growth, Chinese people are less happy overall than they were two decades ago.

Nearly three decades ago, in 1990, in the early stages of China’s economic transformation, a large majority of Chinese across age, education levels, and regions reported high levels of life satisfaction.

Sixty-eight percent of those in the wealthiest income bracket and 65 percent of those in the poorest bracket reported high levels of satisfaction in 1990.

Growing unease

But according to the latest work done by Easterlin’s research team, the percentage of the poorest Chinese who say they are satisfied with their lives has fallen more than 23 percentage points.

This reflects a growing unease about employment prospects and the dissolution of the state-sponsored social safety net.

“There are many who believe that well-being is increased by economic growth, and the faster the growth, the happier the people are,” says Easterlin.

“There could hardly be a better country than China to test these expectations,” he says.

“But there is no evidence of marked increase in life satisfaction in China of the magnitude that might have been expected due to the enormous multiplication in per capita consumption,” Easterlin says.

“…China has gone from being one of the most egalitarian countries in the world in terms of life satisfaction to one of the least.”

He notes that when it comes to health, the divide between the wealthiest Chinese and the poorest has grown, driven by a decline in self-reported health among the poorest Chinese and an increase among the wealthiest.

But one can think of a number of reasons why the Chinese, on average, ought to feel happy about their lives. Pixabay

Easterlin concludes that “there is more to life satisfaction than material goods, and there is an important policy lesson here for the Chinese government and policymakers generally: among ordinary Chinese people, especially the less educated and lower-income, jobs and income security, reliable and affordable health care, and provision for the children and elderly, are of critical importance to life satisfaction.”

Allowing for exceptions

While the experts may have nailed down some of the reasons for unhappiness, it’s important to allow for exceptions to their conclusions.

In such a big country, happiness might vary from city to city and province to province.

When I worked in China in the mid-1980s, I thought that Chongqing in southwest China was one of the most miserable of the many cities that I’d visited. It was heavily congested and polluted by coal-fired power plants.

Many workers there were struggling to carry their loads on poles up steep hillsides. The city even suffered from acid rain.

But Keith Bradsher, a veteran New York Times reporter based in China, brings us an entirely different story from today’s modernized Chongqing.

In a report published on April 12, Bradsher describes how Huang Lin Cai, “a cheery 23-year-old” is filled with optimism even though he recently lost his job at a Ford Motor assembly plant.

Far from panicking, Huang, “used his five months of severance pay to hang out with friends and ponder his career options. He thought that he might perhaps join a friend’s start-up company drawing cartoons on computers.

But for the moment Huang spends much of his time caring for and riding on his beloved motorcycle.

“I just ride to the riverside and enjoy the scene,” says Huang.

Also Read: How Important is Infrastructure For Indian Economy And Expectations of Future Growth?

Huang was born around the time that I visited Chongqing in 1986.

Since then the city has shut down some of its old, heavily polluting coal-fired power plants. And during the Beijing Olympics in 2008, some factories were moved outside the city in order to make it more welcoming to tourists and media.

But it remains one of China’s most densely populated cities. (RFA)

Next Story

Here’s how Carbon Footprint Can be Reduced in India

Carbon footprint in India can be reduced by 20%

Carbon global warming


The report focuses on the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the two most carbon-intensive products — passenger cars and residential buildings.

Producing and using materials more efficiently to build passenger cars and residential homes could cut carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent emissions between 2016 and 2060 by up to 25 gigaton across the Group of Seven (G7) member states, the International Resource Panel (IRP) finds in a summary for policymakers released here on Wednesday.

This is more than double the annual emissions from all the world’s coal-fuelled power plants.

The IRP finds that emissions from the production of materials like metals, wood, minerals and plastics more than doubled over the 20-year period to 2015, accounting for almost one-quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions.

Carbon products cars
Majority of carbon-intensive products are used in manufacturing cars. Pixabay

It warns that without boosting material efficiency, it will be almost impossible and substantially more expensive to keep global heating below 1.5 degrees Celsius — the more ambitious of the two Paris climate targets.

The IRP Summary for Policymakers, Resource Efficiency and Climate Change: Material Efficiency Strategies for a Low-Carbon Future, prepared at the request of the G7, is the first comprehensive scientific analysis estimating total cuts in greenhouse gas emissions in homes and cars that can be achieved through material efficiency.

Together, the construction and manufacturing sectors are responsible for an estimated 80 per cent of emissions generated by the first use of materials.

Using strategies and technologies that already exist, G7 countries could save up to 170 million tons of carbon emissions from residential homes in 2050.

India could save 270 million tons, and China could save 350 million tons in 2050 in this same sector.

If we look at the full lifecycle of cars, material efficiency strategies could help G7 countries, China and India reduce GHG emissions by up to 450 million tons each in 2050. These reductions can help countries stay within their carbon budget.

Extending the lifetime of products, reusing components, substituting or using less material, and making more intensive use of materials by, for example, ride-sharing, are all strategies that G7 countries could implement today to tackle global warming.

“Climate mitigation efforts have traditionally focused on enhancing energy efficiency and accelerating the transition to renewables. While this is still key, this report shows that material efficiency can also deliver big gains,” UN Environment Executive Director Inger Andersen said.

The IRP finds that the carbon footprint of the production of materials for cars could be cut by up to 70 per cent in G7 countries, and 60 per cent in China and 50 per cent in India in 2050.

The largest emission savings from passenger vehicles come from a change in how people use cars, like car-pooling and car-sharing, and a move away from large SUVs.

Greenhouse gases carbon
The construction and manufacturing sectors are responsible for an estimated 80 per cent of emissions generated by the first use of materials. Pixabay

The report also shows that greenhouse gas emissions from the production of materials for residential buildings in the G7, China and India could be reduced between 50 and 80 per cent in 2050 with greater material efficiency.

The most promising strategies include more intensive use of space e.g. reducing demand for floor space, switching out concrete and masonry for sustainably produced wood, improving recycling, and building lighter homes using less carbon-intensive steel, cement and glass.

Reducing demand for floor space in the G7 by up to 20 per cent could lower greenhouse gas emissions from the production of materials by up to 73 per cent in 2050.

Shared homes, smaller units, and downsizing when children move out lead to these big reductions.

The cuts revealed by the report are on top of emission savings generated by the decarbonisation of electricity supply, the electrification of home energy use, and the shift towards electric and hybrid vehicles.

Many of these emission reductions will only be possible if countries create enabling policy environments and incentives, the report says.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres wants countries to increase the ambition of their climate targets at the ongoing UN climate change negotiations (COP25) that entered its final stage in this Spanish capital.

Also Read- 86 Fashion Companies Partner with Political Leaders to Deliver Climate Action

The IRP report urges policymakers to integrate material efficiency into their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to set higher emission reduction targets that will limit the damage from global warming.

Currently, only Japan, India, China, and Turkey mention resource efficiency, resources management, material efficiency, circular economy or consumption side instruments as explicit mitigation measures in their NDCs. (IANS)