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Why do polls show more satisfied people in China?

Updated: 2011-04-25 13:56

By John Ross (chinadaily.com.cn)

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International opinion polls consistently show that the population of China is more satisfied with the direction of their country than people in the US. Naturally, here one is not talking about polls carried out by governments - no one could treat a poll on such a question carried out by the government in any country as objective. These are polls conducted by independent polling organizations.

The most comprehensive is one carried out by the Pew Research Center, based in Washington. Its regular Pew Global Attitudes Project can scarcely be accused of anti-US bias as it is chaired by Madeleine Albright, former US Ambassador to the UN.

Asked the annual question, "Overall, are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things are going in our country today?" in the last poll in 2010, 87 percent of those in China answered "satisfied" compared with 30 percent in the US. The least satisfied countries polled were Pakistan (14 percent) and Lebanon (11 percent).

The gap between China and the US has been widening over time. The first year Pew included China in the study, in 2005, only 72 percent of those in China were satisfied, compared with 39 percent in the US. Over a five-year period, the gap in the number answering "satisfied" between China and the US has widened from 33 percent to 57 percent.

At first glance this might seem a puzzling finding. After all it is no secret that incomes are much higher in the US than in China. Furthermore, while China's economy is growing much faster than in the US, the starting gap between incomes in a developing country such as China, and the developed economy of the US, is so large it will take many decades for China to catch up. Why therefore are people much more satisfied in China?

The answer lies in the fact that people are realistic. There is no magic wand that can be waved whereby incomes in China can immediately catch up with the US. But the point is that each year in China, people's living standards are getting better. Not enough attention is paid to the fact that China has not only the fastest growth in GDP of any major economy but also the fastest rate of growth of consumption. This means each year people in China are able to consume around 8 percent more.

The difference between the two countries was thrown into even sharper relief by the respective ways they responded to the international financial crisis. The US responded by cutting wages and incomes. In China the government responded by increasing the rate of average wage increases. China went through one of the biggest consumer booms in its history last year, with a 15 percent increase in wages and equivalent increases in retail spending.

It is therefore no surprise that when the same Pew survey asked whether the country's economic situation was good or bad, 91 percent in China answered good and only 24 percent did in the US. Again the shift over time has been in China's direction. The first time Pew asked the same question, in 2007, 82 percent said the economic situation in China was good, but 50 percent in the US said it was.

Opinion in China therefore appears to have a rather clear view of the situation. The question that people answer, indeed the literal question they are asked, is about the direction the country is going in. They evidently consider that the direction is a positive one and they do not have an unrealistic view about how quickly problems can be solved. People in the US consider things are going in the wrong direction.

This explains why independent polls consistently show people in China are much more positive about the situation than those in the US.

John Ross is Visiting Professor at Antai College of Economics and Management, Shanghai Jiao Tong University.


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