BEIJING - Who are the happiest people in China? In a survey conducted by Xiaokang (meaning basically well-off) magazine last year, in the eyes of the public, civil servant comes top of the list as a profession. However, the newly published 2012 China Workplace Mental Health Research Report has shown that officials' own sense of self is the unhappiest of all.
For the outsiders, governmental officials have an "iron bowl" – a steady job and they enjoy relatively high welfare. Although the grassroots civil servants do not have high wages, they can always expect to be promoted and look forward to a better future. It is precisely because of this common perception that each year millions of Chinese applicants sit for exams to become civil servants and compete fiercely for popular posts.
Why is there such polarization between the public and the officials? The survey itself may be the problem. In the survey sampling, only 2.7% work for government agencies, nonprofit organizations, or are researchers. In addition, 74.8% of all those surveyed are young people aged 30 and below. This makes it logical that any officials questioned feel unhappy since they are at the bottom of the totem pole with low revenues and high pressure.
But does this mean those on the top of the power hierarchy feel any happier? Alas, were that the case, China wouldn't have so many "naked officials" who send their wives, children and dirty money abroad. Clearly these people, considered generally as belonging to the most powerful group, are also worried that they might not be guaranteed everything forever.
And how about the country's new rich, who are also at the top of the pyramid and control hold most of the society's wealth? It's no news that rich Chinese are keen on emigrating. In China there are more than 700,000 people with at least 10 million RMB ($1.6 million), dubbed the High Net Worth Individuals (HNWIs).
A way out
The China Private Wealth Report 2013 published by Bain & Company two weeks ago revealed that 60% of these HNWIs have started to emigrate, while another third of them now invest overseas. The number of HNWIs and ultra-HNWIs with overseas investments has roughly doubled since 2011, the report stated.
Ultimately, rich people choose to emigrate because they feel unhappy living in China. There are too many things that money can't buy, such as good education, clean air, safe food and an investment environment protected by a legal system.
If even the elite class who hold China's power and wealth find it difficult to experience well-being, wouldn't it be a bit too much to expect happiness for the ordinary people? These are the people who go all the way to Hong Kong just to buy safe baby milk, who rush to grab sacks of uncontaminated rice, who are haunted by the choking haze, and who can't stop running and climbing just to survive...
This is a lose-lose situation. Everybody feels unhappy. The people at the bottom grumble, while those at the top are ready to flee at any moment. Nobody seems able to sit back and relax and feel untouched by this social reality.
But what makes people feel most frustrated isn't the fact that their feeling of well-being is low, but that they feel powerless to change their lives. It's hard for people to alter their path in life for the sake of happiness. In an era where what counts is who your father is, it feels hard to succeed through one's own effort. Meanwhile, life is full of unpredictable risks.
To change this social situation and enhance public well-being, it is necessary to build an open, transparent and credible society with the rule of law and clear, fair regulations so nobody feels insecure.
On top of this, the government should also provide better public welfare and social security so that people can enjoy medical care and retirement. Thus people will have a sense of security and will not feel trapped in the fear of an unanticipated future. The rich can live with peace of mind, the less well-off can live with dignity, and all people can pursue happiness through the virtue of their own efforts.