Second chance for a happy China

In 2001, on the day that Beijing won the bid to host the 2008 Olympics, I was in the city on a school exchange programme. That night was unforgettable: Beijing citizens, strangers and rural migrant workers all gathered in the street to celebrate the victory, creating traffic jams. A driver of an old Chinese minivan generously gave us a ride. Eleven people crowded into the van, which was designed for seven people, but the police didn’t bother to stop us. When the van was on the flyover, people holding the special edition of that day’s newspaper yelled between vehicles and people cheered out of their car windows.   

That night, Chinese people were so proud of themselves and full of happiness.

Ten years on, China’s economy has leaped forward and GDP continues to soar. However, the increasing price level of commodities (particularly unaffordable urban property prices) and Consumer Price Index, as well as notorious demolition incidents, have heated up discussions on the increasingly active internet. Recently, a message has been circulating on Chinese social networking sites: “It was a piece of cake for China to handle the Olympics and the Asian Games. But handling the transportation during the Chinese Lunar New Year is way too difficult.”

Clearly, with resource exploitation, environmental destruction and declining living quality due to high prices and social inequality, Chinese people do not feel proportionally happier as GDP grows.

Now it is 2011 and we are entering the 12th Five-Year Plan period. From articles published in the China Daily, we can see that provincial governments are eager to include “happiness for the people” as a key objective of the next five years – Beijing is proposing to “ensure people live in happiness and prosperity”; Guangdong plans to “protect and improve people’s livelihoods as the main goal of creating a happy Guangdong society” and Chongqing aims to “build Chongqing as one of the regions where people have the strongest sense of happiness”.

This news is, of course, welcome. But if we look back at recent history, Chinese president, Hu Jintao, speaking in 2003, already proposed “people-oriented” development as the overall development strategy. During the fourth meeting of the 16th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, he also stressed that people must be the priority in the construction of a harmonious socialist society.

The “emphasis of people’s livelihoods” is not a new concept at all, and yet China has spent eight years digesting it. I just hope that, in the next eight years, we can really move forward.