I’ve realized that when I write about China, I often end up complaining more than complimenting. In truth, part of that is because I’m jealous. As an American ‘millennial’ I’ve grown up around the idea that my generation both deserves nothing and has ruined everything, and have come to expect that my life will consist mainly of crushing hardship and perpetual disappointment. Amongst my peers in China, by contrast, almost everyone sees clear blue skies ahead.
What gives? How can Chinese people be so carefree and optimistic in such a messed-up world?
There are a few major reasons…
1) Their nouveau-riche money
China’s wealth has expanded enormously quickly since the 1970s. Globalization literally lifted about 500 million Chinese people out of poverty in the last 30 years or so, while average wages have increased at an exponential rate. Young men and women who nearly starved in the famines of the early 1960s now live in posh apartments with their grandchildren in Shanghai high-rises.
This new money means parents and grandparents are freer than ever to provide lives for their children that are far better than what they had growing up. The abundant food and stable political climate in much of the country means the Chinese feel things are, compared to recent history, very, very good… whereas in the USA, comparatively, things are not any better for us than they were for our parents.
2) Economic certainty
While things are getting more expensive in China and there are threats of a bursting housing bubble, overall young people do not really worry about their careers. Apart from the innovative and rapidly growing service sector, there is still plenty of solid middle-class factory work, which still provides a salary that is good enough to get by thanks to China’s comparatively cheap cost of living.
While the phrase ‘economic uncertainty’ is somewhat overused in the USA to explain things that maybe it really shouldn’t, there is definitely a lot of truth to the statement that young people are quite uncertain about our economic futures. Jobs are really competitive, and even getting a Bachelor’s Degree doesn’t secure a place for you. This is not true in China, where even the non-college educated can still make a decent wage.
No, I’m serious about this one. I will take my freedom of the press any day, but you’ve got to admit that sometimes it’s a bit of a drag. Sometimes you get home from work at night and just want to relax to something pleasant, not turn on the news to find that our president has made some embarrassing international gaffe or a certain Party is trying to take away our healthcare again.
In China, there is no negative news about China, so people have much higher confidence in their own government. They believe politicians are looking out for their best interests because they hear nothing to the contrary, so they don’t usually bother debating or disputing the Party’s policies. Instead of worrying about the next election, Chinese people can come home from work and turn on a nice, relaxing movie about China winning a war against Japan or something. It sounds quite satisfying.
4) Collaborative culture
Apart from China’s economic and political successes, it must be noted that certain aspects of Chinese culture are just better at keeping more people happier. Humans are social animals, and we evolved in tribes where we all took care of each other. Yet despite this fact, societies like America choose to emphasize the value that people should rise to the top as individuals rather than as a part of a whole, and that being the best is more important than participating.
This idea isn’t exactly bought into in China. While students in particular can be quite competitive with each other, there is still more of a focus on how the group works together. For example students usually stay in one class which takes all its subjects together throughout the year, rather than allowing individuals to take AP Calculus or AP French when they excel compared to their classmates. And communal activities remain common among adults, such as public tai chi classes where everyone practices together with strangers. Or random opportunities to sing and dance in front of strangers in the park. People aren’t ashamed to do these things, because they don’t feel the need to impress or stand out—they’re just having fun with a group of random people.
Lastly, China is a bit happier than the rest of the world, I believe, because it is mostly cut off from the rest of the world. While certain frightening trends sweep the globe—terrorism, nativism, internet-based hate movements—these things have barely reached mainland China and have little chance of spreading. The lack of a free internet and the close eye the government keeps on even the smallest protests means it would be extremely difficult to form an opposition organization in China that posed any real threat to society. The government has made it so that movements cannot spread, and since most movements nowadays are admittedly kind of scary, that consequence of government control is really not so bad.
Chinese people know it, too; they see things like terrorism as something crazy that the rest of the world does, not something that could ever reach its own shores. They take pride in living in a society that is peaceful and prosperous, and with those needs met, why bother thinking about that unpleasant politics stuff at all?