Chinese Voice Their Dreams of a Better Future

by Richard Burkholder, International Bureau Chief

Peace, prosperity common themes

The 2004 Gallup Poll of China asked nearly 3,600 Chinese adults nationwide this open-ended question:

"All of us want certain things out of life. When you think about what really matters in your own life, what are your wishes (and hopes) for the future? In other words, if you imagine your future in the best possible way, what would your life look like to be happy?

Their answers provide a unique, scientifically representative look at the aspirations of China's people. What follows is a summary of key themes that emerge.

Greater Affluence

The most commonly expressed wish is for greater personal prosperity. So what is "the good life" in China, at least in material terms? Responses show three main components: a high salary, a nice home, and -- still rare in China today -- owning one's own automobile. 

  •  "I can have a car and an apartment, and a monthly income of 5,000 yuan (RMB)." -- woman, aged 25-29, Wuhan
  •  "I can own a car and an apartment and be a boss and have a successful career." -- man, 30-39, Shanghai

Material aspirations range from the extravagant …

  • "I can have a car and a spacious and well-furnished house like Bill Gates." -- man, 25-29, Shanghai
  • "I hope I can own a sports car in the future. I know it is an ambitious aim." -- man, 30-39, Wuhan

… to the very basic:

  • "I can have ample food and clothing. Nothing else." -- man, 40-49, Ying Kou, Liaoning Province
  • "I can eat rice, spinach, carrot, and cabbage every day." -- man, 40-49, Ningyang, Guangdong (rural)
  • "I can find a job that starts at nine o'clock and ends at five o'clock." -- woman, 18-24, Shanghai
  • "Agriculture will be mechanized … my life is very hard." -- woman, 60+, Yongzhou, Hunan (rural)

Strong Entrepreneurial Ambition

Entrepreneurial goals are remarkably strong, even in rural China:

  • "I can set up a fashion store." -- woman, 18-24, Hohhot, Inner Mongolia
  • "I can buy a car to do business and set up a retail store on the roadside." -- man, 50-59, Shangluo, Shaanxi (rural)
  •  "The business I am running can boom and my children can go to college." -- man, 30-39, Baoding, Hebei (rural)
  •  "My company, which sells handicrafts, will expand." -- woman, 18-24, Shanghai
  •  "I can become rich by raising pigs and planting fruit trees." -- man, 60+, Zhumadian, Henan (rural)

A Local Government That Gives, Rather Than Takes

Chinese express considerable discontent with local officialdom -- particularly in rural areas (many of which need improved transportation and infrastructure), and in areas where homes are being demolished without adequate compensation:

  • "The village committee will not collect money from our peasants too often." -- woman, 50-59, Ningyang, Guangdong (rural)
  • "The government will not demolish our house." -- man, 50-59, Wuhan
  •  "The quality of life of people in Xi'an can be improved and the government will settle some of the problems for the city workers." -- man, 30-39, Xi'an
  • "The road can be built and the bridge will be constructed." -- man, 40-49, Chaoyang, Liaoning (rural)
  •  "I hope the government will show care for our wounded soldiers (veterans)." -- man, 50-59, Yongzhou, Hunan (rural)
  • "We peasants can also get medical and labor insurance. The rural areas can develop and every village can be connected by good roads." -- man, 50-59, Fuzhou, Jiangxi (rural)

At the extreme is this:

  • "To kill all the corrupt officials." -- man, 50-59, Shanghai

Nevertheless, the central government's economic reforms receive credit for China's recent material progress, and a collectivist spirit endures in the desire to see one's children grow to be of use to society:

  •  "I can cultivate my child into a useful man for society." -- woman, 30-39, Weinan, Shaanxi (rural)

Hopes for a Cleaner Environment

Many responses reflect concern about the current state of the environment:

  • "The whole family can keep healthy and live in a place with a clean environment and green surroundings." -- woman, 50-59, Tianjin
  • "The environment will not be destroyed." -- man, 50-59, Quzhou, Zhejiang (rural)
  • "I can live in green surroundings with fresh air." -- man, 40-49, Nanjing

Concerns for Social Security and Affordable Healthcare 

Several of the themes may resonate with older Americans:

  • "The price of drugs can be cut by 40%." -- man, 60+, Beijing
  • "I can get my pension in time." -- woman, 60+, Beijing
  •  "I can get medical insurance and enjoy public health service so that I can pay medical costs when I am ill." -- woman, 60+, Tianjin
  • "It's extremely necessary for people to be safeguarded, with safe food, safe medicine, and good medical treatment." -- man, 60+, Xi'an
  • "My child is ill and I have to borrow 3,000 yuan from the bank for medical costs." -- woman, 40-49, Yongzhou, Hunan (rural)

International Peace and Domestic Stability

  • "The world will be peaceful. Our country can be reunited [referring to Taiwan]." -- woman, 60+, Wu Xi, Jiangsu
  • "The world is peaceful and no war breaks out. I can enjoy my 'chair days' [old age] peacefully" -- man, 60+, Shanghai
  • "The society can be stable … I still remember the days of Chairman Mao." -- woman, 50-59, Ying Kou, Liaoning

A Desire to Travel, Relocate, or Even Emigrate

  •  "I can go touring South Korea or France with 10,000 yuan." -- man, 60+, Tianjin
  • "I hope my daughter in Belgium can get on well, and that we can go visit her sometime." -- man, 50-59, Shanghai
  •  "I can travel all over the world and tour around our beautiful country. I can emigrate from China to another country." -- woman, 40-49, Xi'an
  • "I hope I can live a much better life in a big city." -- man, 30-39, Quzhou, Zhejiang (rural)

Educational Aims: The Country's Best Universities -- or Even Those Abroad

  • "My sons and daughters can study in the U.S." -- woman, 30-39, Nanjing
  • "My son can enter Beijing or Tsinghua University and become a postgraduate student and study abroad, the U.S.A. in particular." -- woman, 40-49, Tianjin
  • "I hope that my child can enter a university and know more than me, as I am an illiterate person." -- woman, 30-39, Anqing, Anhui (rural)

Though there was also this:

  • "(I hope) the education system will be reformed to lighten the pressure on children in their studies." -- man, 30-39, Nanjing

Isolated Dissonant Voices of Disillusion and Bitterness…

  • "I have lost confidence in the country, and I have never thought about the future life." -- man, 40-49, Shanghai
  • "I have been out of work since 1992. I have lost the heart for life. I am going from bad to worse. I hope to have ample food and clothing." -- man, 40-49, Shanghai
  • "I do not lead a happy life with the dirty environment and poor, laid-off people in this community. All play mahjongg every day to kill their time. I hope I can find a job soon." -- woman, 30-39, Wuhan
  •  "We have no businesses, and can only work as migrant workers." -- man, 30-39, Gaoping, Shanxi (rural)

…But Also Voices of Contentment and Hope

  • "I am contented with life at present. The future should be like this." -- man, 50-59, Beijing
  • "I am 70 years old and life is much better than before. I believe future life will be better and better." -- man, 60+, Gaoping, Shanxi (rural)
  •  "Life can continue unchanged … Going to supermarkets and department stores after dinner." -- woman, 50-59, Shanghai

For Some, Nostalgia Still Exists for a Communist Society

  • "To lead a communist life: at least I do not have to worry about food and clothing." -- woman, 50-59, Wuhan

Whatever nostalgia remains, however, is countered by dreams like this:

  • "I can live a wealthy and democratic life, with American style." -- woman, 30-39, Puyang, Henan

Bottom Line

In the end, many of China's hopes are expressed with terse simplicity:

  • "To lead a better life than now." -- man, 50-59, Chaoyang, Liaoning (rural)
  • "The richer the better." -- man, 25-29, Fuzhou, Jiangxi (rural)
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