China's Citizens Optimistic, Yet Not Entirely Satisfied

by Richard Burkholder, International Bureau Chief

The new Gallup Poll of China asked Chinese adults nationwide to assess their satisfaction with 14 aspects of their personal lives. Which areas of their lives are the Chinese currently most satisfied with, and which areas cause them the most concern?

In short, family life and personal health are the areas of greatest satisfaction, while household financial issues -- particularly savings and income -- provide the most widespread grounds for discontent. But financial stress notwithstanding, a majority of Chinese describe themselves as satisfied with their overall standard of living.

As reported earlier (see "Chinese Far Wealthier Than a Decade Ago -- but Are They Happier?" in Related Items), nearly two-thirds of all Chinese say they are satisfied with the way things are going in their lives (12% "very satisfied," 51% "somewhat satisfied). A remarkable 77% also say they are satisfied with their family lives (21% very satisfied, 56% somewhat satisfied), and a similar proportion express satisfaction with their personal health (32% very satisfied, 45% somewhat satisfied).

A majority of Chinese also express satisfaction with their clothing (64%), the amount and quality of the food they get (61%), the home electronics and other durable goods they own (58%), their current housing (55%), and their overall standard of living -- that is, all the things (they) can buy and do (53%).

Chinese are also more likely to be satisfied than dissatisfied when asked about their jobs or the work they do (48% are satisfied and 40% are dissatisfied) and the education their children are receiving (45% satisfied, 22% dissatisfied, 31% not applicable).

Not So Satisfied

On the other hand, 46% of Chinese are less than satisfied with the way leisure time is spent (43% are satisfied). And outright majorities say they are dissatisfied with their own educations (55%), their household incomes (58%), and -- most dramatically -- the amount of savings they have (68%). A third of Chinese go so far as to say they are "very dissatisfied" with their household savings at present.

The Country and the City

Despite the country's continuing urbanization, about 60% of China's population still lives in areas officially classified as rural. In a somewhat surprising finding, residents of China's rural areas are now significantly more likely than the country's urban citizens to describe themselves as satisfied with their own communities as places to live (65% vs. 52%, respectively).

On other key measures, however, residents of China's cities are more sanguine about their personal circumstances than are their typically less affluent rural counterparts. For example, while 58% of urban residents are satisfied with their personal standard of living, the country's rural residents are evenly divided on this score (49% satisfied, 49% dissatisfied).

Similarly, urban Chinese are far more likely than those in rural areas to express satisfaction with the way they spend their leisure time (urban: 51% satisfied; rural: 36% satisfied), the home electronics and other durable goods they own (69% vs. 50%), their clothing (71% vs. 59%), their savings (34% vs. 23%), their education (49% vs. 39%), and even the amount and quality of the food they get (67% vs. 57%). Finally, city dwellers are less likely to be dissatisfied with their jobs or the work they do (urban: 29% dissatisfied; rural: 46% dissatisfied).

For Many Items, Satisfaction Lower Than Earlier Polls

The net levels of satisfaction reported in the latest Gallup Poll of China tend to be somewhat lower than those reported in previous waves of this survey. This pattern is particularly apparent when comparing the current results to those from1997 -- the first year in which Gallup used the current four-point satisfaction scale*.

For example, the percentage of respondents describing themselves as satisfied with their jobs or the work they do has fallen from 62% in 1997 to just 48% today. And despite a 135% increase in reported average household income from 1997 to the present, the percentage expressing satisfaction with their incomes has actually declined from 53% to 41% over this same period.

Along With Greater Affluence, Higher Expectations for the Future

How do Chinese feel about the courses their lives have taken over the past few years, and how optimistic are they about their personal futures? 

Using a card depicting a mountain with 10 numbered "steps," Gallup asked respondents to point to the step they thought best represented the current quality of their lives. Respondents were then asked to indicate the step that most closely corresponded to the quality of their lives five years ago, as well as that which best indicates where they expect to be five years hence**.

On this 10-point scale, the average self-assessed quality of life is still slightly below the mid-point -- 4.45. This represents a significant advance, however, from the average rating of 3.48 that these respondents give to their personal quality of life five years ago.

Even more remarkable is the optimism Chinese express regarding the quality of life they expect five years from now -- an average rating of 6.49. The realization of this expectation would be a significant advance toward the mountain's peak, which represents "the best possible life you can imagine."

Residents of China's rural areas feel they have progressed further in terms of quality of life over the past five years than do their urban counterparts. True, rural dwellers currently rate their own quality of life slightly lower than do urbanites. But to the "typical" rural Chinese, the past five years have marked an average improvement in perceived quality of life from 2.92 five years ago to 4.26; for the typical urbanite, the corresponding perceived improvement has been more modest, from 4.33 to 4.73. A more dramatic indication of their optimism, however, is the fact that rural Chinese expect their quality of life five years from now (6.49) to draw even to that expected by those in urban China (6.48).

Next Week: Personal Philosophy: Is China's Famed "Work Ethic" in Jeopardy?

*When Gallup first asked this question in China in 1994, the following five-response-choice scale was used: "very satisfied, somewhat satisfied, neither satisfied nor dissatisfied, somewhat dissatisfied, or very dissatisfied?"  However, because such a high proportion (38%) of the 1994 respondents opted for the 'soft option' mid-point ("neither satisfied nor dissatisfied"), in each subsequent wave of this survey we have substituted the following four-choice scale: "very satisfied, somewhat satisfied, somewhat dissatisfied, or very dissatisfied?"

**This so-called "striving scale" was developed over five decades ago by noted psychologist Hadley Cantrell, and has been used in scores of countries since then (see, for example, the 2002 Gallup Poll of the Islamic World).

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