Unlike most summers in Beijing, which are usually arid and scorching hot, the summer of 2012 was in one word – wet. Storm after storm, the rain would sometimes get so strong that I saw thigh-deep waters more reminiscent of an ocean than a city street outside my window. In July 2012, the largest flood in more than 60 years swept Beijing, flooding streets and homes, trapping people in their cars, and killing around 70 people (unofficial figures estimated to be much higher). More than the natural disaster, Beijing residents were outraged at the government’s inadequate response to the flood. They asked how could such an atrocity happen in China’s capital? Despite the 4 trillion-yuan infrastructure stimulus following the 2008 financial crisis, there weren’t enough drains that could handle the flood, too much litter clogged the existing drains, and leftover debris from construction sites left the water muddy and dangerous. While Shanghai also received heavy rainfall, the city did not experience devastating floods because its infrastructure problems are not as severe as Beijing and the majority of China.
Infrastructure isn’t the only problem. In September, a Foxconn manufacturing facility in Taiyuan, the capital of the Shanxi province, was shutdown following a chaotic riot that erupted between workers and security guards. One of the biggest electronics manufacturers in the world for high tech companies such as Apple and Dell, Foxconn has recently been criticized for poor working hours and wages. In a New York Times article concerning the September shutdown of the facility, a Foxconn employee was quoted saying, “At first it was a conflict between the security guards and the workers, but I think the real reason is they were frustrated with life.” Labor protests like those at the Foxconn manufacturing facilities are just one symptom of the Chinese people’s dissatisfaction.
Earlier this year, Professor Richard A. Easterlin, a leading authority on subjective well-being, a.k.a. happiness, released a report titled “China’s life satisfaction, 1990-2010.” The study showed that contrary to conventional wisdom that suggests that happiness coincides economic growth and improvement in living conditions, this is not the case in China. Post-1979, China witnessed the reform of socialist programs such as state-owned enterprises. According to the study, after the dismantling of the iron rice bowl, people began to lose their jobs and their social safety net, and became less happy relative to when the iron rice bowl existed. And even as GDP per capita increased for all socioeconomic classes, happiness did not correlate. Instead, when people, in particular those in the lower socioeconomic classes, saw the growing inequality between the rich and the poor, their life satisfaction decreased.
Happiness has historically been an integral component to Chinese society. In Confucian theory, the idea of the benevolent leader entails a ruler’s responsibility to ensure harmony through the maintenance of balance in society. Happiness can be seen as a necessary condition, if not a metric for societal harmony. The success of China and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) greatly hinges upon the happiness of its people. And leaders realize this. A goal that is often cited in party rhetoric is to achieve a “harmonious society.” But whether this is an actual or nominal goal has yet to be demonstrated.
I would argue that the problem is not entirely one of infrastructure, corruption, or inequality – at least not explicitly. The real problem is a lack of trust– trust that you can buy Chinese goods without fear of illness or death, that when it rains, the drains will be able to rid the streets of water, that when an earthquake occurs, the buildings will remain intact, that your officials will adhere to a certain code of ethics, that with hard work, you can succeed. The people must have faith that the CCP has the common people’s best interests at heart. Only then will the CCP have the hearts and happiness of the people and the harmonious society they purport to desire.
In the end, no one is denying that the CCP has achieved remarkable success in economic growth in the past 30 years. People’s livelihood has undoubtedly been bolstered by China’s huge strides in economic development. However, now the issue is more what the CCP could do. The CCP could make strides towards greater safety, health, and labor standards. They could aim for quality rather than quantity when it comes to modernization. That way, perhaps incidents like the massive flood in Beijing or the protests at Foxconn can be prevented. And especially with the new leadership transition in November, the CCP has great potential to not only remedy the systemic problems in China, but also build the nation on a more solid foundation and pave a road to prosperity.