July 22, 2008

The Chinese Celebrate Their Roaring Economy, As They Struggle With Its Costs

Near Universal Optimism About Beijing Olympics

Overview

FigureAs they eagerly await the Beijing Olympics, the Chinese people express extraordinary levels of satisfaction with the way things are going in their country and with their nation’s economy. With more than eight-in-ten having a positive view of both, China ranks number one among 24 countries on both measures in the 2008 survey by the Pew Research Center’s Pew Global Attitudes Project. These findings represent a dramatic improvement in national contentment from earlier in the decade when the Chinese people were not nearly as positive about the course of their nation and its economy.

The new Pew Global Attitudes survey also finds that most Chinese citizens polled rate many aspects of their own lives favorably, including their family life, their incomes and their jobs. However, levels of personal satisfaction are generally lower than the national measures, and by global standards Chinese contentment with family, income and jobs is not especially high. Further, Chinese satisfaction with these aspects of life has improved only modestly over the past six years, despite the dramatic increase in positive ratings of national conditions and the economy.

In that regard, Pew’s 2007 survey showed that the relatively low Chinese personal contentment was in line with the still modest level of per-capita income there – looking across the 47 countries included in that poll, life satisfaction ratings in China fell about where one would predict based on the country’s wealth.1 The current poll takes a deeper look into how the Chinese people evaluate their lives and specific conditions in their country, providing further insight into the contrast between the average Chinese’s satisfaction with the state of the country and its economy and relative dissatisfaction with elements of personal life.

FigureThe new data suggest the Chinese people may be struggling with the consequences of economic growth. Notably, concerns about inflation and environmental degradation are widespread. And while most Chinese embrace the free market, there is considerable concern about rising economic inequality in China today.

These are the latest findings from the 2008 Pew survey of China. Face-to-face interviews were conducted with 3,212 adults in China between March 28 and April 19, 2008, a period which followed the March 10 onset of civil unrest on Tibet and preceded the May 12 earthquake in China’s Sichuan Province. The sample, which is disproportionately representative of China’s urban areas, includes eight major cities, as well as medium-sized towns and rural areas in eight Chinese provinces. The area covered by the sample represents approximately 42% of the country’s adult population.2

Almost universally, the Chinese respondents surveyed complain about rising prices – 96% describe rising prices as a big problem for the country, and 72% say they are a very big problem. And nearly half (48%) of those polled say health care is difficult for their family to afford.

But the Chinese are almost as concerned about equity in China as they are about inflation. About nine-in-ten (89%) identify the gap between rich and poor as a major problem and 41% cite it as a very big problem. Worries about inequality are common among rich and poor, old and young, and men and women, as well as the college-educated and those with less education. In that regard, despite economic growth, concerns about unemployment and conditions for workers are extensive, with 68% and 56% reporting these as big problems, respectively.

Complaints about corruption are also widely prevalent, with 78% citing corruption among officials and 61% citing corruption among business leaders. Six-in-ten also rate crime as a big problem. Concerns about both corruption and crime are widespread among all segments of China’s population.

While corruption is seen as a problem, most Chinese (65%) believe the government is doing a good job on issues that are most important to them. However, poorer Chinese and residents of the western and central provinces covered in the survey give the government somewhat lower grades than do citizens in eastern China.

Environmental issues also emerge as a top problem and a top priority. Roughly three-in-four (74%) cite air pollution as a big problem and 66% so named water pollution. In response, as many as 80% of Chinese think protecting the environment should be made a priority, even if this results in slower growth and a potential loss of jobs.

Free Markets and Modernity Embraced

FigureBroad public recognition of China’s growing pains notwithstanding, the polling found broad acceptance of China’s transformation from a socialist to a capitalist society. Seven-in-ten say people are better off in a free market economy, even though this means some may be rich while others are poor. This sentiment is true across demographic groups, and even those in the low-income category believe in the benefits of the free market system.

FigureThe social changes in Chinese society that have accompanied the transformation and growth of the economy get a somewhat mixed review. On the one hand, about seven-in-ten (71%) say they like the pace of modern life. But on the other, many worry about vanishing traditions – 59% believe their traditional way of life is getting lost, while just 37% say these traditions remain strong.

The belief that traditional ways are being lost is less prevalent among rural residents, older people, and lower socioeconomic groups. Instead, those who tend to be on the cutting edge of China’s rapidly modernizing society – the college educated (68%), 18-29 year-olds (67%), high income earners (67%), and city dwellers (65%) – are the most likely to see traditional ways disappearing.

On many of the most important issues facing China, discontent is associated with how people feel about free markets. Those among the 28%-minority who oppose the free market system are more likely than others to voice concerns about economic problems such as unemployment and conditions for workers. They are also more worried than others about education and health care. Moreover, free market opponents have more lukewarm views about the Chinese government – only 53% believe the government is doing a good job on the issues that matter most to them personally, compared with 71% of those who support the free market.

Olympic Optimism

FigureThe Chinese are as upbeat about the Olympics as they are about their national economy. Fully 96% believe China’s hosting of the games will be a success, and 56% say it will be very successful. While this survey was in the field, the Olympic torch relay was being hounded by demonstrations in Britain, France, the United States, Argentina and elsewhere, and these protests received considerable coverage in the Western media. However in China, press coverage of the relay might have been more positive, because despite the negative international publicity generated by these events, nearly all of those surveyed think the games will improve China’s global profile – a remarkably high 93% say the Olympics will help the country’s image around the world.

Most Chinese not only see the Olympics as important for their country, they also feel a personal connection to the games. Roughly eight-in-ten (79%) say the Olympics are important to them personally, and 90% feel this way in the host city, Beijing.

The Chinese public is also confident that their country’s athletes will shine – 75% say the Chinese team will win the most medals, while only 15% believe the U.S., which brought home the most medals from the 2004 Summer Olympics, will win the medal count. Despite all the excitement, however, there are some signs of Olympic fatigue – 34% say too much attention is being paid to the games, up from 25% in 2006. This view is especially common in Beijing, where nearly half (46%) believe the Olympics are receiving more attention than they should.

Uneasy Foreign Relations

FigureThe Chinese public expresses a great deal of confidence about their nation’s place on the world stage. In particular, most Chinese also recognize the growing impact their economy has on others around the world, and they believe it is a positive impact. Only 3% of Chinese think their economy is hurting other countries. This is very different from how Americans currently view the effects of their nation’s economy – 61% say the U.S. is having a negative impact on other countries.

Overwhelmingly, the Chinese think their country is popular abroad – roughly three-in-four (77%) believe people in other countries generally have favorable opinions of China. However, the polling highlights significant tensions between China and other rival powers. Views toward Japan are especially negative – 69% have an unfavorable opinion of Japan, and a significant number of Chinese (38%) consider Japan an enemy. Opinions of the United States also tend to be negative, and 34% describe the U.S. as an enemy, while just 13% say it is a partner of China. Views about India are mixed at best – 25% say India is a partner, while a similar number (24%) describe it as an enemy.

Additional Findings

  1. For more on the 2007 findings, see "A Rising Tide Lifts Mood in the Developing World," Pew Global Attitudes Project, July 24, 2007.
  2. For more details, see the Survey Methods section of this report.