When life satisfaction disconnects from GDP growth, it has to be met in other ways to ensure the Party’s rule, and I believe we are approaching that moment. Today we will be looking at some of those options.
Note: while I do not have access to a crystal ball, I’m putting time frames on these issues to emphasize that these are not things that will be changed instantly, and to clarify the order in which they may happen.
Lowering Costs (The Present)
The Party knows that even though many Chinese people are far richer than their parents, many of them still cannot afford many of the basic appliances that can improve living standards. This is why the gov’t offers generous subsidies to people buying refrigerators, washing machines, and even televisions. While this was partially an effort to increase domestic consumption during the economic crisis, it has also helped maintain the Party’s popularity.
While I had read that this program was designed for China’s rural population, one of the doctors at my hospital told me that he had opted to purchase a new fridge instead of repairing the old one, because this choice was cheaper. He had a huge grin when he spoke of the savings, and the Party seems more than willing to foot the bill.
China has also been discussing further reducing taxes, even though the current rate is far below most (if not all) developed countries. As it stands , people are complaining of the 5-10% income tax they pay.
The gov’t is also scrambling to control inflation, housing prices, and even the cost of pork. Just today an article was published in the People’s Daily calling for an end to the “Cult of GDP”.
Social Programs (Next 5 years)
This is an area that I think is already undergoing major changes to help ensure the Party’s mandate to rule. In China’s most recent 5 year plan healthcare reform was one of the top concerns, and these concerns can be seen in the hospital I work in. Expanding medical coverage is just one way to improve the standard of living through social programs.
I would expect that they will also be pushing for further reforms in education and public transportation. These efforts will help to maintain favor beyond what a growing salary would maintain. At present these services are seen as inadequate, and I would expect these to be major expenditures over the next few years.
Better Environment (Next 5-10 years)
Much has been made of the recent protests in Dalian which were sparked over concerns of a PX factory (a deadly chemical). For the first time tens of thousands joined in the streets to demand action, and the gov’t did not crush them. While this protest was not about protecting the city’s green credentials, it was about citizen’s concerns about their own health (we’ll be looking at protests more tomorrow).
Beyond social programs, the Party is going to have to improve the environment if it wants to keep the people happy. This would most likely mean moving the worst factories to remote parts of China, because stability in the population centers is of the utmost importance.
When I visited Beijing in 2007 I was partnered with a local middle school student for language practice. When we visited the Temple of Heaven, the student could not walk more than 15 minutes without feeling in need of rest. Her lungs had been assaulted from birth by the capitol city’s filthy air. Citizens are just starting to demand action on air quality, and the Party will be forced to concede to maintain control (check out my review of When a billion Chinese jump, a thoughtful book on this issue).
Voice in Government (Probably 10+ years)
Once these other efforts fail to produce increasing life satisfaction (remember the Party needs improvement not just high satisfaction), and they will as there are again diminishing returns on each of these, the Party will be forced to take a final step – giving people a voice in gov’t.
Just to be clear, I don’t think that this new system will look like American democracy, but that it will be more transparent, and locally influenced than the current system. We are already starting to see the tiniest concessions in this area (which I mentioned last week in my discussion of Weibo), but the gov’t still is unwilling to make meaningful changes to the system.
At the moment the will of the people is limited to removing the most corrupt officials, but still lacks the ability to regulate gov’t much beyond the local level. This regulation is necessary to protect the other measures that were implemented to improve their life satisfaction.
Continued tomorrow when we’ll be considering how this change might come about.