The new Chinese economic theme: Happiness!

By Kevin Bloom 23 March 2011

At China’s recent National People’s Congress, the focus was less on raising the GDP than it was on promoting the happiness of Chinese citizens. Could that be because economic growth for the next five years has been forecast at a lower rate than the last five? Perhaps, although that doesn’t mean Beijing isn’t serious about making the country smile. By KEVIN BLOOM.

Can happiness have an index? The problem with this question is obviously the question that precedes it: what’s happiness? If we go to the literature, we get answers in every conceivable shape. Julia Child, the great American chef, author and TV personality, boiled it down to a recipe: “Moderation. Small helpings. Sample a little bit of everything. These are the secrets of happiness and good health.” A somewhat food-orientated take on the problem, and perhaps of little use to the billions of people on the planet who don’t get their metaphors from cuisine. Albert Einstein, one of the geniuses of the modern era, offers something different: “A table, a chair, a bowl of fruit and a violin; what else does a man need to be happy?” Might be enough for Albert, but what if you’re not smart enough to sit in that chair and decode the universe? So on to Leo Tolstoy, arguably the greatest writer of the modern era: “Joy can be real only if people look upon their life as a service, and have a definite object in life outside themselves and their personal happiness.” Fair enough, very similar to the answers given by the Dalai Lama and Eleanor Roosevelt, although way off those put forward by Andrew Carnegie and the other “self-made” industrialists – happiness, to this bunch, is the setting and achieving of goals. And then there’s Charles Schulz: “My life has no purpose, no direction, no aim, no meaning, and yet I’m happy. I can’t figure it out. What am I doing right?”

If the delegates at China’s National People’s Congress were as confused as the rest of the world about what constitutes a joyful state of mind, they weren’t letting on. Because there the talk was way less about GDP growth than it was about – you guessed it – happiness. On a purely superficial level, the reason for this was Premier Wen Jiabao’s revelation in February that the growth target of the People’s Republic’s next Five-Year Plan (at seven percent) would be lower than the outgoing one; the message was that a higher GDP didn’t automatically translate into happier people. Dig a little deeper, though, and it becomes apparent that China’s new happiness motif is way more than a diversionary tactic.

A few days before the congress started, the respected Chinese economist Hu Angang argued on chinadialogue.net that China should institute a Gross National Happiness (GNH) index similar to the one instituted in the tiny mountain kingdom of Bhutan in the 1970s. Hu noted that a 2008 report co-authored by, amongst others, Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen had advised that methods for measuring national economies should be altered to include variables such as subjective happiness, quality of life and distribution of income. Wrote Hu: “A national happiness index with Chinese characteristics should have a role in this process [of measurement]. Back at the start of China’s period of ‘reform and opening up’, the nation identified a comfortably-off society as a development aim – and the government promised to create that society. The proposed index would not only provide a more comprehensive measure of the development of that society, but also a new way of assessing government performance.”

Indeed, as Damien Ma observed in The Atlantic, leading Chinese media outlets like Xinhua and the Economic Observer ran discussions and surveys in the days leading up to the congress, all focused on the imperative of bringing happiness into the national development equation. On a practical level, Ma suggested that one way of delinking a provincial government’s performance indicators from the historical dependence on GDP would be to place economic growth on the same level as environmental sustainability, energy efficiency, income and welfare, and educational and cultural promotion.

But not everyone was as convinced about the efficacy of a GNH index for China as Hu, Ma and the most influential Chinese media brands. On 17 March The Economist weighed in with their assessment of the plan, and the thrust of the piece was that political suppression very seldom contributes to a happier populace. Since Premier Wen made his statements about the need for political reform last August, The Economist pointed out, the jailing of dissidents has been stepped up – driven in part by the central government’s paranoia about an Arab-style “jasmine revolution”. The article continued: “The government’s crackdown on dissent apparently includes a strengthening of China’s internet firewall to make it more difficult to use software to evade blocks on sensitive foreign websites. Some websites in China recently carried a report that 11% of respondents to an opinion poll believed national happiness is boosted when they express themselves freely on the Internet. If only they could.”

The venerable magazine had a point, but is the lack of political reform enough to rubbish the entirety of the proposed new system? As China, South Africa and just about every country in the developing world knows, economic growth (as important as it is) cannot raise the average level of a populace’s happiness on its own – for that to happen, the poor need to share in the wealth. DM

Read more:

Photo: A worker laughs as he unloads sacks of onions at a vegetable wholesale market in Shenyang, Liaoning province October 21, 2010. REUTERS/Sheng Li.