September 4, 2013, by Tony Hong

Are You Happy?

By Dr. Xiaoling Zhang,

Head of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China,

Associate Professor in Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham.

Before the week-long holiday with the traditional Mid-autumn Festival on the 30th of September and National Day on the 1st of October happening together, the state Central China Television Station (CCTV) put on a program asking people on the streets if they are happy. 

This program shows the growing confidence of CCTV, one of the main platforms of the Party-state for the guidance of public opinion, following CCTV’s own survey on “economic lifestyles” conducted in 2010, which shows that almost 45 percent of Chinese people are happy.  This survey claims to cover 31 provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions, 104 cities and 300 counties). However, some answers point directly to the growing gap between the rising middle class and the rural migrant workers laboring away in cities away from home.

A very typical answer came from a rural migrant worker: “don’t ask me; I am only a migrant laborer’.  When pressed again if he is happy (你幸福吗?), he replied, “My surname is Zeng (我姓曾)”. While mandarin teachers can use this interaction as an example to show how a pronunciation of one syllable can lead to many different characters and thus different meanings in mandarin Chinese, Mr Zeng obviously feels an outsider to the city he was laboring in, and does not know what the question exactly means. Or simply put, he does not know what happiness means.

As big-engine-car owners of the rising middle class take advantage of the newly introduced “toll-free” highway policy during national holidays, blocking highways and overwhelming tourist sites, many other people relying on public transport swarm bus or railway stations for going home.

Photo taken at the South Bus Station in Ningbo around 2:30pm on 30th of September, 2012

Photo taken at the South Bus Station in Ningbo around 3:00pm on 30th of September, 2012, minutes before it became impossible to raise an arm to take more photos.

China has urbanized quickly over the last three decades, reducing the population of farmers in the countryside from more than 80% before its economic reform to the current 50% or so.  However, the average annual income of urban residents in 2010 was 3.23 times that of their rural counterparts, according to a report released by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). Data from the International Labor Organization (ILO) in 2005 showed that in the  majority of countries around the world, income disparity ratios between urban and rural were lower than 1.6. As China’s figure was more than double, many farmers choose to continue to leave their hometown to work in cities.  According to Xinhua news agency, 250 million farmers go to cities to work in 2011.

For more than 60 years, city and countryside often seem like two different worlds, running on different technolo¬gies, organized in different ways, and having a different standard of living. Most important, these differences have been maintained by strict controls on mobility. It was extremely difficult for rural people to move to the city.

The two banks of the river with not very clean water that runs through the campus of Nottingham University Ningbo China also bespeaks the gap during the holiday: on the greens on one side of the river was dotted with a few colorful tents providing shades for toddlers and mothers and one red dinghies, while fathers were fishing.  On the other side of the river was a rural couple in their late 50s washing some heavy bedding in the dirty water.  The answers would be very different if they were approached with the questions “are you happy?”  From the 1980s, mass rural-to-urban migration began, and the barriers between urban and rural society have begun to break down. However, they will take many years to disappear.

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