BEIJING — After three decades of pushing ever-higher growth rates and exhorting their countrymen that “to get rich is glorious,” China’s Communist Party rulers have recently rolled out a new economic mantra: be happy.
Premier Wen Jiabao laid down the new measure of progress earlier this year, during the annual meeting of China’s rubber-stamp legislature, the National People’s Congress. He said the government’s goal would be to make prosperity more “balanced.”
And thus began a torrent of happiness campaigns, happiness surveys and happiness-promotion measures.
There was a serious purpose behind the new approach, which includes lowering economic growth targets to a more modest 7 percent. Chinese officials worry that years of “GDP obsession,” as one of them put it, could contribute to a public backlash against rising prices, unemployment and other economic woes.
But what has unfolded since Wen’s speech has shown what can happen in China when provincial-level officials and the state-controlled media try to outdo one another in embracing a message from the top.
In Beijing, for the May Day holiday, 17 giant screens across the city and thousands of small televisions on buses and subways and in office buildings showed “happy testimonials” from workers. Beijing Television ran a series of short films called “Happy Blossoms,” documenting the apparently contented lives of teachers, factory workers and others.
Other provinces joined the happiness caravan. Wang Yang, the party secretary of Guangdong province, promoted the idea of “happy Guangdong” as part of his government’s five-year plan. “Happiness for the people is like flowers,” Wang wrote in an article. “The party and the government shall create the proper environment for the flowers to grow.”
Guangdong last week released the results of a happiness survey in which 500 residents ages 17 to 35 were interviewed. More than 90 percent scored 60 out of 100 on a happiness scale, with 100 being bliss and 1 being outright misery.
Not to be outdone, Chongqing city announced a bold plan to become “the central city of the country where people have the strongest feelings of happiness.”
And since the beginning of the year, the central government has embarked on a series of measures aimed at improving people’s livelihoods. Measures were announced to try to rein in the spiraling cost of real estate, including building more low-income housing. People with lower incomes were given a tax break, and the government announced a price rollback on 162 types of common medications.
Also, taking direct aim at one of the largest sources of discontent across the country, the government announced restrictions on forced demolitions of homes by private developers.
“The policy orientation has changed from enriching the country as the first priority to enriching the people as the first priority,” said Wang Yukai, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Governance, the ruling State Council’s training school for mid-level bureaucrats. “People’s happiness and livelihood are now given more weight in the government’s decision-making process.”
The happiness campaign coincides with a widespread crackdown on internal dissent, including the arrest of scores of lawyers, bloggers and activists, among them the internationally renowned artist Ai Weiwei. Restrictions on foreign journalists, academics and foreign embassies also have been increased.
Zhang Ming, a political science professor at Beijing’s Renmin University, said the actions reflect alarm at the turmoil unfolding across the Middle East and North Africa, including the toppling of authoritarian leaders in Egypt and Tunisia.
“On one hand, the government control is more strict, in all aspects of the society, such as on the Internet, and they try to maintain the stability by force,” Zhang said. “On the other hand, the government tries to ease social tension by implementing more favorable welfare policies.”
Are the policies working? The answer, going by surveys and interviews, appears mixed.
A survey conducted last year found that life satisfaction levels were on the decline among both urban and rural Chinese, according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government-affiliated research organization that published the findings. The poll found a huge gap between recognition of the country’s economic achievements and people’s well-being on an individual level. Topping the list of concerns were prices, the health-care system, high property costs and employment.
But a separate report published this month by the organization, based on a survey of 4,800 people, found that more than 74 percent were either happy or very happy.
Not everyone seems to be feeling happier.
“The pressure of living is too much for me,” said Sun Wenguang, a 27-year-old real estate agent in Beijing. “I sell and rent houses to people all day, but I can’t afford even the smallest apartment.’”
Wang Luxia, a 57-year-old retired worker, said her main worry is that the increases in pension payments never seem to be enough, especially as the price of groceries continues to increase.
“I feel I am poorer in the society than before,” Wang said. “I know that the government made efforts to improve people’s livelihood. But it’s still not enough.”
Special correspondent Zhang Jie in Beijing contributed to this report.