CCP’s Illusory and Absurd Official Performance Measure: Making People Happy

Mar 17, 2011

China’s two parliamentary sessions [the National People's Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, held annually in Beijing] opened under heavy military presence because of echoes of the Jasmine Revolution reverberating in China since Feb. 20. Still, Party and state leaders felt no restraint in leading the choir of state representatives to bellow People’s Daily’s slogan: “Happiness is Taking Off this Spring .”

Where does Chinese people’s happiness come from? [It comes] from the Party leaders’ mouths. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao stated before the conferences that an official's performance and political achievements should be evaluated by whether the public is happy.

A People’s [Daily’s] report proclaimed, “[Making] the public happier” will be the theme of China’s next five-year plan.

Therefore, “happiness” has become the media buzzword during the Two Sessions.

It's all about making people happy these days,” a Chinese government official from a northern province told The Telegraph. “Happy, happy, happy, that's the only word that counts at the moment.”

In 2006, independent British think-tank New Economics Foundation (NEF) introduced the Happy Planet Index (HPI). The index is a function of three major variables: life expectancy at birth, subjective life satisfaction, and ecological footprint per capita. Well-established indices such as GDP and the level of democracy and freedom are not included in the calculation, therefore the NEF scores are typically lower in more industrialized countries. In the 2006 and 2009 NEF rankings, Central American and Asian countries ranked relatively high, while the European and North American countries ranked lower. Almost all African countries were at the bottom of the list.

David Cameron, Prime Minister of the U.K. announced his intention to gauge the nation’s happiness using the HPI. Starting from 2011, the U.K.’s Office for National Statistics will poll British citizens on their subjective wellbeing four times a year. The plan has been widely taunted.

In my opinion, this undertaking is both illusory and absurd, most of all because the definition of happiness is too broad. At present, happiness is just a subjective feeling; each individual has his or her own unique definition of happiness.

Since happiness is an emotion that cannot be quantified or measured, no wonder two official surveys [about Chinese people’s happiness] conducted before the Two Sessions came to contradictory conclusions.

One survey, initiated by National Congress representative Wu Xiaoling, suggests that 75 percent of respondents regarded themselves as happy. What's comical about this survey are the two key measurements used, one is related to income, and the other to the economic development of the respondent’s residential area. Residents in the central government direct-controlled municipalities [Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Chongqing] turned out to be the happiest, followed by provincial capitals, and those in smaller cities being the least happy.

This reflects a Chinese-style interpretation of happiness. In Western societies, few people would tie happiness exclusively to money. The result of this survey also goes sharply opposite of the U.K.’s HPI since the latter suggests that people in less economically developed and less modernized regions, such as the Central America and Vietnam, are the happiest in the world.

Another survey was conducted online by Only six percent of the 1,350 respondents considered themselves to be happy, and 36 percent said their lives have improved in the past five years. Forty percent of respondents believe happiness is determined by one’s financial status.

The survey also found that residents of larger cities, or “tier one cities,” are the least happy, since they are under greater pressure from issues such as high housing prices and heavy traffic.

The English report of this survey was published on March 3 on China Daily’s website under the title: “Only Six Percent Happy, Survey Finds.” It has since been deleted from the website since it is not in harmony with the theme of the Two Sessions.

China’s past GDP-reliant measurement system was indeed flawed. In the 1930’s, economist Simon Kuznets who first developed GDP, warned: “The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income.”

People have increasingly realized that GDP cannot gauge people’s social welfare or environmental consumption or social development indicators such as civil rights.

No doubt, China should adopt another set of criteria to measure social development, but I do not believe the intangible and overly subjective “happiness index” is a good alternative. Instead of creating a happiness index through official surveys, the authorities should focus on solving real problems such as food safety, employment, income inequity, as well as alleviating violent oppression of the people.