Cost of Growth


Question: are the Chinese people less happy today than they were 20 years ago? According to the economist Nick Marx, who invented a new method to measure quality of life, happiness and relationships between human beings, the answer is positive.

The standard measurement of quality of life in nations today is the GDP (Gross Domestic Product), which is recognized worldwide as the appropriate way to measure wealth in nations. Yet, according to Marx, the measurement of GDP is inadequate when we wish to establish how well or how happy people are. He developed a new method to measure quality of life (or happiness) called HPI (Happy Planet Index). In this index countries are rated according to various standards such as longevity of life, productivity, pleasure from life, happiness and curiosity.

I have a feeling some of the younger people in China are a little overwhelmed and confused by the sudden influx of western culture. It seems to me that some of them have lost something very essential in their identity. As a foreigner living in China, I believe that I can observe objectively on how people behave to one another. I have come to realize that the Chinese are adopting certain elements in western lifestyle while eliminating some of their own cultural heritage. This phenomenon is happening all over major cities in China, and it expresses itself by one major guiding rule: Money.

I would like to provide very few examples to this phenomenon, in order to clarify my point of view:

1. Destruction of Hutongs in favor of building commercial areas – I have recently discovered that there was a plan to destroy some of the ancient areas in Beijing known as Hutongs. These quarters were built around the 13th century by emperors who then ruled Beijing. One hutong that comes to mind in particular is known as Gulou – The Drum and Bell Tower area. Some parts of that area were meant to be destroyed and instead a mall or a parking lot was supposed to be built. To my understanding, that plan will eventually not be executed.

2. Alcohol – In China, the culture of drinking alcohol is very different from the Western one. People usually do not go to bars or clubs (in rural areas they obviously do not exist) but drink while they eat, usually at dinner. Beer or spirits that are usually very high in alcohol volume (50%-60%) are very popular. However, in the past 10 years, clubs and bars are becoming more popular in major cities. The clubs are usually very big and extravagant, and by booking a table one will get a plate of fruit and a big bottle of Whiskey. At approximately 3-4 am, one can find clubbers outside either throwing up or just passed out.

3. Consumerism of luxury goods – The Chinese government is encouraging growth in consumerism. However, only people who have money to spend can actually spend it. Therefore, wealthier people are treating themselves to top foreign brands (usually paying more for them in mainland China than in the U.S or Hong Kong) while poorer people are not. The result is the creation of a new social order (I should note that while writing this post the Chinese government published a document pushing to narrow the income gap between the years 2011-2015 – the twelfth 5 year plan. It stated that “China will strive to narrow income gaps between people in rural and urban areas, different regions and industries” and that “China will increase residents’ property incomes, boost employment, raise minimum wage standards, ensure workers’ wages are duly paid and increased as well as enhance the role of tax in regulating excessive incomes.”)

These examples are setting a trend that could be dangerous to China. It is my opinion that the Chinese society is lost. On one hand, the Chinese culture and tradition are tremendously strong and are embedded deeply into daily life all over China. On the other hand, there is a very strong force pushing many young people away from this culture. This force is symbolized by the examples given above and by many others I do not specify here, all of which are related to money in one way or another.

One should also notice the fact that in China only one child is allowed per family. This means that all of the attention by the parents is focused at only one child. Since the parents grew up at times where not much money was available and luxury goods certainly did not exist, the feeling that they can now provide for every need of the child is evident in some of the items they purchase for him or her. It is not rare to see very young children with the newest Iphone or other types of expensive gadgets.

The Chinese society has reached a crossroad. On the one hand, it is growing rapidly, and growth is needed for stability. On the other hand, this growth is unprecedented at its rate and length. It carries with it a heavy cost. Only one generation separates between parents who might had been born before the opening reforms took place and between children who receive pretty much everything they want.

Two questions rise from this phenomenon: Will China be able to sustain that cost, and will it find a formula to mix its ancient culture with modern western patterns?

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About the Author

Lior Paritzky is the Editor in Chief and Manager of Laowaiblog, an internet platform that provides opinion and views about social phenomena in modern China. Look for Lior on Twitter: Liorpari