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For China, Economic Growth Doesn’t Always Equal Happiness

Posted by Ram Kumar Shrestha on May 16, 2012

CHINA PHOTOS / GETTY IMAGES
A woman washes clothes next to a railway near a shanty town in Shenyang, China

When Bo Xilai, the rising Chinese Communist Party official who was purged in March, gave his last public comments before disappearing into detention, he was wrong about a lot of things. That bit about not being under investigation, for instance. But one line he uttered has the clear ring of truth, and it poses a serious issue for China’s leadership as it attempts to navigate this year’s political transition, the economic slowdown and the ripples loosed by Bo’s removal. Bo revealed that China’s Gini coefficient — a statistic that measures the gap between rich and poor — had entered into worrying territory. He described the number, which hasn’t been made public in over a decade, as over 0.46. Anything higher than 0.4 is considered dangerously high and capable of fueling unrest.

In Chongqing, where Bo was Communist Party secretary for 4½ years, he made building economic protections like subsidized housing for the megacity’s poorest residents one of the tenets of his “Chongqing model.” The wholesale corruption he and his family have been accused of may have steered the wealth gap in the wrong direction, but Bo understood the political importance of appearing to care about the problem, just as he knew the appeal of cracking down on crime and reviving Mao-era culture.

It’s a point that many other officials seem to have missed, mindful perhaps of Deng Xiaoping’s declaration that “some will get rich first,” but forgetting the coda that their prosperity would then spread to all. China’s growth in recent decades has been astonishing and surveys like the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project have found high levels of satisfaction and optimism in China. But there is more to those numbers. A deeper examination of Chinese citizens’ levels of satisfaction indicates that while the country’s richest are increasingly content, the poor are growing more and more unhappy. Read the rest of this entry »

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