Incomes are nothing worth bragging about

By Bai Ping (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-11-01 11:05
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While how much one makes is usually confidential in the West, many Chinese professionals are not shy about publicizing their financial situation - on the Web, that is.

For those interested in knowing the incomes of some Chinese, the information is literally at their fingertips. Encouraged by China's anonymous blogosphere, where most people use Web handles, white-collar workers have been flocking to share their private financial information online. They have even coined a special term to describe the phenomenon: shaigongzi (which means showing salaries). When I recently checked the term on, the popular search engine in China, I had close to 2 million listings on white-collar salaries in cities across the nation.

But you'll be disappointed if you're expecting the kind of pride and optimism that matches the second largest economic power in the world. Instead, you may probably see pictures of young college-educated professionals struggling to make ends meet. One after another, they will likely talk about how it's difficult to save money to buy a home and start a family, and how their confidence has taken a hit from financial turmoil.

Following official standards in Beijing, these young people belong sociologically to the marginal middle class. These are college graduates who work at junior corporate or public jobs, earning between 3,000 yuan ($449.58) to 6,000 yuan a month. Most are in their 20s or 30s and are anxious to own a home and a car for both personal reasons and as symbols of success.

But such ambition has proven to be an elusive dream that is drifting farther away every day for many. According to official estimates, it'll take 25 years for a Beijing family with an annual disposable income of more than 64,000 yuan to a buy a 90-square-meter home. Now think about the despair of young professionals who earn half that amount but need a roof over their heads with an impending marriage.

What's more alarming is that people who qualify for the upper middle class in China, defined as those who make 10,000 yuan a month or more, are not satisfied with their lives, either.

In one widely circulated post, a Beijing white-collar homeowner - let's call him Mr Anonymous - gave a detailed breakdown of how he spent 14,000 yuan a month for his family of five, including a grandparent and maid who helps to take care of his 2-year-old son.

About half of his family budget pays off the home mortgage, car expenses and utilities. To keep his spending in check, Mr Anonymous has introduced strict measures, including hiring a less-experienced, 1,800-yuan-a-month maid and finding a kindergarten that charges 880 yuan, which is at a steep discount from other kindergartens.

Mr Anonymous wrote that the family will only shop for food at discount stores. He also wrote that he and his wife haven't gone to a shopping mall for a year now.

"There really isn't much to be jealous of even if I have a home, car and kid," he lamented at the end of his post.

I believe in the general veracity of these stories - I do not see a reason why so many professional workers would lie to make their lives look miserable. The widespread anxiety of upward social mobility deserves the government's attention before it grows into more serious social discontent.

Official statistics show China's economy grew at an annual rate of 10.1 percent from 2002 to 2009. The inflation-adjusted income of Chinese employees, however, only grew 8.2 percent annually over the same period. Salary raises for Chinese workers, including poorly paid professionals, have long been overdue.

On a side note, the coming Chinese five-year economic plan that aims to improve people's livelihoods through increases in incomes should be applauded more than any other national development strategy.

The only questions are how soon and how much.

American psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton have found that more money does not necessarily buy more happiness, but less money is associated with emotional pain. In their recent research on United States residents, they have found that people report decreasing happiness and increasing sadness and stress depending on their income levels.

The two scholars have also established $75,000 as the threshold income for Americans; the lower a person's annual income falls below the threshold, the unhappier he or she feels. But once you're there, money is no longer an issue and more money doesn't bring a greater degree of happiness.

The theory seems to have offered an alternative perspective from the conventional wisdom that people's desires are insatiable and that once you give them more money, they'll quickly get used to the new circumstance and ask for more.

Perhaps the scholars' reasoning can also help explain why Chinese people who earn more than 300,000 yuan or more seldom come forward with details of their incomes on the Web.

But until you hit that benchmark, life will be a continuous, hard struggle.

The author is the consulting editor for the China Daily US Edition.