Happiness may be “U-shaped,” but a recent survey suggests that, despite their problems, the Chinese may be the world’s leading optimists. In “What Worries the World,” a study by global market-research firm Ipsos, 87 percent of Chinese adults said their country was “heading in the right direction,” while 60 percent of citizens of 25 other surveyed countries considered theirs on the wane.
Western Europe and other high-income nations—where contentment is said to decline between ages 18 and 40 before rising in the 50s to peak in one’s 60s—all displayed signs of severe pessimism (apart from Canada), with main worries being unemployment, crime, terrorism, and poverty. In China, though, less than five percent are worried about issues like terrorism or immigration. The results won’t surprise those familiar with the Pew Global Attitudes Project, whose survey in 2015—although conducted before the disastrous stock-market crash in August—found that 77 percent of Chinese felt better off financially than five years ago, and 96 percent considered their standard of living better than their parents at the same age.
The Ipsos poll is therefore consistent with previous findings. But there were still significant omissions and findings beyond the happy headlines.
Despite a constant stream of stories about pyramid gangs, loan sharks, and investment scams, and a high-profile political crackdown that only now, after four years, seems to be winding down, China was the only country out of Ipsos’ list of 25 that did not rate “financial/ political corruption” as one of its top three concerns (optimism might also reflect the prerogatives of a one-party state, where politicians don’t have to belittle each other’s achievements to vie for ballots, and state media is compliant).
In fact, Ipsos showed no data for corruption, social inequality, taxes, or extremism in China (a representative from Ipsos told TWOC, “We don’t ask those categories in China”); in Pew’s 2015 poll, on the other hand, 84 percent of respondents thought corrupt officials were a big problem (44 though still said very big), down from 54 percent in 2014, though still topping the list. But Pew also found that 63 percent believed corruption “would improve in the next five years”—more of that Chinese optimism.
Neither poll’s methodology is critic-proof, of course: Pew is based on face-to-face interviews with “a nationally representative sample of 3,649 randomly selected adults” (a condition that may produce more favorable responses), while Ipsos takes its data from online surveys, which represent a self-selecting and “more affluent, connected population.”
On one area they seem to agree: Chinese society is under threat from within. In 2015, 66 percent of respondents said their traditional way of life was being eroded by, variously, consumerism, commercialism, and foreign influence (Pew). In 2017, Ipsos respondents picked “moral decline,” (47 percent) followed by “threats to the environment” (40) and “unemployment” (31) from a list of 17 top concerns, including traditional worries like education and health care.
Out of the 26 countries, China was most worried about public morality (Japan, with 27 percent, came second), a subject which didn’t crack any other’s nation’s top three concerns. This reflects a regular middle-class gripe—a 2014 People’s Tribune survey listed lack of morals and a “bystander” attitude as society’s worst problems. Whether it’s stories about heartless strangers, or the ubiquity of food scandals and small-scale rackets, there’s an innate lack of trust that’s consistently dogging China’s progress.
And this is a common dynamic in public opinion. When looking outward, the Chinese are strident, even overconfident—most think foreigners view their country favorably, although, according to a 2017 Pew poll, only 44 percent of Americans actually do, up from 37 percent last year. Turned inward, though, that sunniness turns to soul-searching and even despair: Bullish about China, many lack the same confidence in other Chinese.
“Honest Question” is a story from our issue, “Modern Hermit”. To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.