Chinese unease growing at flip side of progress
October 23rd, 2013
08:38 AM ET

Chinese unease growing at flip side of progress

By Richard Wike, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Richard Wike is Director of Global Attitudes at the Pew Research Center. You can follow him on Twitter @RichardWike. The views expressed are his own.

After a remarkable run of economic expansion that has lifted tens of millions out of poverty, the Chinese public is waking up to the side effects of progress. True, much of the growing middle class is pleased to have achieved some degree of material comfort. But that same middle class is increasingly asking tough questions about the costs of economic growth and the fairness of the system that produced it. And the record setting levels of pollution this week in the northeastern city of Harbin, where schools and the airport have been shut, will only intensify scrutiny of President Xi Jinping’s government in the run up to next month’s meeting of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee.

Harbin, a city of 11 million people, was essentially closed Monday and Tuesday as thick smog raised concentrations of PM2.5, the most dangerous airborne particles for health, to more than 30 times the level considered safe by the World Health Organization. Air pollution tends to be worse in the winter, and many now fear a repeat of last January’s “airpocalypse,” which brought impenetrable smog and record breaking toxicity levels to Beijing and other major cities.

And air pollution wasn’t the only thing on Chinese minds this year – water pollution generated some grisly headlines throughout the country – and around the world – as thousands of pig carcasses floated down the Huangpu River, through the center of Shanghai, threatening the city’s water supply. Factor in the fact that China has had more than its share of highly publicized food safety issues, including Chinese food producers implicated in scandals involving poisonous infant formula, toxic rice and rat meat disguised as mutton, and it is easy to see why public concern is growing.

These fears are underscored by polling at the Pew Research Center, which has found increasing concern in China over a range of issues related to environmental protection, consumer safety, and public health. Today, according to a recently released survey, 83 percent describe air pollution as a big problem, while 47 percent say it is a very big problem, up from 36 percent last year and 31 percent in 2008. Four-in-ten Chinese call water pollution a very big problem, compared with about a quarter five years ago.

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Concerns about public health and consumer issues have risen even more sharply. The latest numbers suggest that 38 percent believe food safety is a very big problem, up from just 12 percent in 2008. Worries about the safety of medicines and the quality of manufactured goods, meanwhile, have also increased significantly. These issues are especially important to young people, urban residents, and those with higher incomes – exactly the demographic groups that have benefited the most from the country’s long run of economic growth.

Of course, compared with many other nations around the world, China’s public mood is relatively upbeat. The Chinese tend to be more satisfied with national conditions, happier with their economy, and more optimistic about the future. For example, more than eight in ten believe that when Chinese children grow up, they will be better off financially than their parents, the highest percentage among the 39 countries included in the 2013 Pew Research survey.

Still, even China’s impressive economic record elicits some complaints. Rising prices worry most Chinese, with 59 percent saying they are a very big problem, the highest percentage among the 17 issues tested on the poll. Moreover, there’s a clear sense that the benefits from decades of growth are not being equitably shared. About half say the gap between rich and poor is a very big problem, and in a 2012 survey, 81 percent agreed with the statement “Today, it’s really true that the rich just get richer while the poor get poorer.”

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As the Communist Party meets for its plenary session, officials might also be concerned that there is a widespread perception that political elites, in particular, are enjoying more than their fair share of the economic spoils. Corrupt officials are considered a very big problem by a little more than half of Chinese, an increase of 14 percentage points since 2008. It’s too soon to tell how the high profile conviction of former Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai will affect attitudes toward corruption, but the trial’s sensational details about the high living of Bo and his family fit neatly with public suspicions about the ways power can be leveraged into financial gain.

As concerns rise about issues like pollution, health, inequality, and corruption, it’s clear that many Chinese are wrestling with the downsides of growth and rapid modernization. Of course, it is unlikely that public anger over issues like dirty air and water will pose a serious threat to the Communist Party anytime soon, but these are the types of issues that can generate grassroots mobilization that eventually make life uncomfortable for a country’s leaders. As the Economist recently put it, China now has “a middle class that has discovered nimbyism,” and more importantly, the Chinese government “fears that environmental activism could become the foundation for more general political opposition.”

It is perhaps with all this in mind that the Communist Party is reportedly showing growing interest in understanding public opinion, conducting polls and establishing “opinion monitoring centers” in media organizations and universities to scrutinize the country’s exploding volume of online chatter. What they will likely hear when they tune in to public debates will be a rising chorus of complaints about a new set of issues that were not on their radar screens a few years ago. Back then, unprecedented economic growth seemed like it was enough to keep the public satisfied and the protestors off the streets. The future is less clear.

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Topics: China • Environment • Uncategorized

soundoff (49 Responses)
  1. chrissy

    Wonder if this factor might induce China to want to relinguish some of our job market that they've acquired?

    October 23, 2013 at 9:06 am |
    • j. von hettlingen

      Not only is Harbin landlocked, it has a monsoon-influenced, humid continental climate in summer and a dry-bitterly cold winter. As it is mostly sunny in winter-months, the Heilongjiang Province attracts skiers from all over China.

      October 23, 2013 at 4:38 pm |
      • j. von hettlingen

        Today the Northeastern region is a huge mining and construction site. In the last 10 years, there had been cases of serious environmental concern. Deforestation contribute to floods and dry summers lead to water shortage. In 2005, toxic deposits found in the Songhua River (Amur in Russia) became an issue of dispute between Moscow and Beijing.

        October 23, 2013 at 4:39 pm |
  2. Wasnt Mee

    China is having their Industrial Revolution and yet to find the last straw like a Love Canal. Then growth will be diverted towards the masses health or face the wrath of many choking Chinese and their kids.

    October 23, 2013 at 9:23 am |
  3. Lee Paradis

    "Of course, compared with many other nations around the world, China’s public mood is relatively upbeat."

    They can complain about air and water quality because they are tangible and the world sees it. But perhaps the author doesn't know that the people there have to say positive things about things that are not, especially if they the results are not clear. Even though the Government is more Capitalist-Communist now instead of Marxist, you still can't say anything against government efforts and abilities to run the country. This is true especially to reporters.

    October 23, 2013 at 9:29 am |
    • j. von hettlingen

      Abraham Marlow's hierarchy of human needs is universal. Once a human being attains a level of satisfaction, he wants more. For China's middle class, it's no longer making ends meet. Their main concern is to maintain a quality life.

      October 24, 2013 at 8:20 am |
  4. Seriously?

    Lee – I guess you've never been to China, or if you do you rarely spoke to locals or read newspaper. People criticize government in open form – internet, street, dinner talks, friendly gatherings. But everyone recognizes that Chinese government has a long term plan and are on track in execution to deliver a better life quality for all Chinese. Pollution issue is serious, and it will be dealt with. But we got our priority straight. What good does it make if you breath clean air but live in poverty and cannot make ends meet?
    As for reporters – we have seen a couple of arrests not because of their speaking up against the government but due to their fabricated reporting and rumor spreading. In the mean time, I think Americans should have a lot to say about their government chaos and especially surveillance of its own citizens without legal search warrant. Where is Snowden, BTW?

    October 23, 2013 at 9:48 am |
    • pollutants

      To Seriously? You're critisizing Lee for straight talking about un-free speech in China and you're sound like a Chinese propogandist.

      October 23, 2013 at 12:01 pm |
    • Yakobi

      Just look what Chinese authorities did to Chen Guangcheng and his family.
      Three words you'll never be able to say in Communist China: Tiananmen Square massacre.

      October 23, 2013 at 1:01 pm |
    • paul

      You did not remember China jailed some reporters and writers for just report what they learned from the Chinese officials, did you? Snowden worked for the USA government. He violated his contract. Even so if he stayed and allowed the media to report what he found, he would still be granted a fair trial. You know what would happen to him if he was an employee to the Chinese government and leaked their secrets: execution. He would not get a fair and open trial. Don't you forgot Bo Xilai?

      October 23, 2013 at 4:47 pm |
      • Steven

        If he was an employee to the Chinese government, he would be invited to White House to have dinner and be nominated to next Nobel price.

        October 23, 2013 at 10:25 pm |
      • Pseudotriton

        Snowden be granted a fair trial? I think you miss-spelled "show trial". Are you familiar with Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning?

        October 24, 2013 at 12:15 am |
    • paul

      One more thing: at least the US government allowed Snowden's father to go to Russia to see him. Remember Wei Jinsheng? Wei did not leak any Chinese secrets. In fact he was not in any position to know any. All he did was to ask the government to reform. He was jail for more than 10 years and expelled to overseas. The Chinese government even did not allow his aging father to see him before I was forced out of China. And his father worked for the communist party for his entire life.

      October 23, 2013 at 4:58 pm |
    • Bill

      Hi Seriously:

      You must earn another 50 cents today. Congratulations!!!

      October 23, 2013 at 5:51 pm |
      • Pseudotriton

        Judging by the grammar skills of some of his repliers, I'd say the other side is not casual American news reader either.

        October 24, 2013 at 12:14 am |
  5. jim

    It's a big difference between leaking classified info compared to brething in toxic air. Besdies, China will have their own Snowden before you know it.

    October 23, 2013 at 10:10 am |
  6. lemon

    " more importantly, the Chinese government “fears that environmental activism could become the foundation for more general political opposition.”

    Uh oh, China need their very own Fox News to deal with the horrible environmentalists.

    October 23, 2013 at 10:27 am |
    • Kelley

      their very own Fox News to deal with the horrible environmentalists – that's priceless, well done.

      October 23, 2013 at 4:09 pm |
  7. valkaryn

    They are talking like China can just happily go on making all this stuff that the earth is running out of resources to make!

    October 23, 2013 at 10:32 am |
  8. TiredOfPaying

    What you are seeing in China is the result of unbridled Capitalism. When Big Business realized that they could not pollute at will and governemnt regulation forced them to make safer products at the expense of profits they moved to China. Now they are exploiting the chinese. If China wakes up and starts cracking down, they will move somewhere else like Africa. There is no plan to fix the issues, develop healthier alternatives or enforce quality – Big Business simply wants profit and all else be dammed. In a way, China is royally messed up: If they regulate and clean up the pollution then the businesses will leave forever. If they don't then their own people will die in droves and health care costs will skyrocket. For now they are betting that the increased prosperity is worth it. What they don't know is that the West has a 200 year head start on ways to exploit the Workers, so they're going to LOSE. Capitalism, at least Unbridled Capitalism, will not fail until there are no more poor to exploit. With 6 billion people to use up that is not going to happen anytime soon.

    October 23, 2013 at 10:37 am |
  9. Manchester United fan

    Tick, tick, tick, tick

    October 23, 2013 at 10:42 am |
  10. Dennis

    While this might sound ludicrous, I believe this is exactly the Republican (GOP) model of keeping government regulation out of Business. KIILL THE EPA!

    October 23, 2013 at 11:46 am |
  11. xavier

    China with it's growing pains of better living for the masses an a growing middle class sooner or later like here in the US. they will see the very rich get richer an the poor not making head way in their fight for a better life the people will start to protest. Money breads problems if you do not have any or at least your fare share of the money a PROBLEM IS COMING FOR THE CHINA.

    October 23, 2013 at 11:51 am |
  12. JLCG

    Let this serve as a lesson to all those who want to roll back our own environmental and safety regulations.

    October 23, 2013 at 12:26 pm |
  13. Yakobi

    Dust bowls, deadly flu strains, severe pollution, the flooding of our markets with counterfeit goods, killing of dolphins for shark bait in order to use their fins in soup, poisonous pet food...

    Thanks, China! So glad you're a responsible superpower now.

    October 23, 2013 at 12:55 pm |
    • UTAH

      What superpower is responsible? In the US income inequality is shocking. The richest 400 people have more wealth than the bottom 50% of the nation. How is that responsible?

      October 23, 2013 at 2:17 pm |
      • Yakobi

        Yeah, cuz playing Robin Hood and stealing from the rich and giving to the poor has EVERYTHING to do with the problems 1.35 billion Chinese are causing around the world.

        October 23, 2013 at 2:29 pm |
      • Obs

        Yakobi, "1.35 billion Chinese" causing trouble around the world? They need to round up racist pr*cks like you and put you on an island somewhere. Fk off.

        October 24, 2013 at 12:53 am |
    • Pseudotriton

      All of what you wrote there have been done by many countries, including the US, in one form or another. The US had dust bowls, the world had Spanish flu, American fishermen killed dolphins with their tuna catches, J a p a n and Norway are still actively killing dolphins and whales, Canada is still actively clubbing seals every year, Fukushima is still leaking radiation, etc. etc. The problem is the human race as a whole, not any particular country or ethnicity. Comments like yours is laden with ulterior motive.

      October 24, 2013 at 12:31 am |
  14. Dxsanch

    When will these giant greedy corporations realize that they are killing it's own people! All I can say is...just keep it in their shores.

    October 23, 2013 at 1:20 pm |
  15. RT Colorado

    This article reads fairly positive, I'm only guessing, but the Chinese sound like they're turning a corner. The question is how will China deal with the adversity that comes naturally with growing economies and democratic government, the tradition has been revolution, but with so many Chinese being vested in the process, who knows maybe they can have a more pluralistic approach.

    October 23, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
  16. Jack Pirate

    Welcome to the world of industrialization and capitalism. They are just 50 years or so behind the rest of the industrial world in pollution and pollution controls. Remember America 50 or more years ago. Pittsburgh, Love Canal, etc. The elite get the rewards and the rest are stuck at the bottom. How is this different than the U.S., the Club Med countries, etc.? Not much. Going back to the Babylonian Empire, the Persian Empire, the Roman and Greek Empires, Czarist Russia and now Putin's Russia as well as Stalin's Soviet Union, etc., etc. ad nauseum it's been the same. Sad but true.

    October 23, 2013 at 2:22 pm |
  17. chrissy

    @ Tired of Paying, @ Dennis and @ Utah, i think the 3 of you just said it all and quite accurately too! There doesn't seem as though much more could possibly be added!

    October 23, 2013 at 2:39 pm |
  18. The Mayor Of Medinah

    For the most part that portion of the planet is becoming a toxic waste dump, to many people, accelerated expansion, corrupt government, lack of enforced environmental controls and regulations

    October 23, 2013 at 3:13 pm |
  19. dase

    So that is what products mean when they say made in china. i thought china that made our products was in detroit or something.. I'm certain now that it is our fault..

    October 23, 2013 at 3:25 pm |
  20. Smoke

    This is the kind of pollution the GOP want in the U.S.

    October 23, 2013 at 4:27 pm |
  21. Solomon Kake

    Wonder if this will influence China to not be the world's largest polluter, expecially via coal smoke ... oops, we are not supposed to mention that are we, Canadian oil sands are a much bigger problem right?

    October 23, 2013 at 5:06 pm |
  22. NorCalMojo

    Wait until they figure out that they don't really own any of the wealth they've been slaving and choking themselves over. It's still a communist system. Private property rights don't exist.

    October 23, 2013 at 5:24 pm |
    • Obs

      Go read a book and do some research first for once before you start assume and spew bs you know nothing about. Thanks.

      October 24, 2013 at 12:56 am |
  23. filo bedo

    The Chinese will figure out how to use smog as a food source then as building material eventually they will export it around the globe.

    October 23, 2013 at 8:25 pm |
    • paul321

      No, the west will need to figure out how to do that and the Chinese will just steal it. Why invest in research when you can get it for free?

      October 23, 2013 at 10:42 pm |
  24. allenwoll

    Whether one speaks of great personal wealth or great national wealth, it is virtually impossible to achieve either in the space of one lifetime without unfairly exploiting and hurting someone else. . It is a matter of history !
    This is the simple fact which somehow and remarkably escapes the typical "90-Day Results" Conservative - plus typically such people could NOT care less (to their exceeding dangerous peril in the long term).
    Oh, by the way, what do we properly term the "ex-Commie" leaders of China who now outdo the typical Capitalist at the game of Capitalism ? ?

    October 23, 2013 at 10:32 pm |
  25. Pseudotriton

    "These issues are especially important to young people, urban residents, and those with higher incomes – exactly the demographic groups that have benefited the most from the country’s long run of economic growth."
    Yeah, that is the real conundrum, isn't it? China didn't have these environmental problems before the 1980's, when virtually everybody lived in poverty. This is what happens if you want to lift 1.5 billion people onto middle class living standards. There's simply no way around it. Economic growth is dirty, and sustainable growth is a myth.

    October 24, 2013 at 12:08 am |
  26. Mary

    The US, as well as other Western Countries are clearly the ones to blame when it comes to China's growth getting out of control. We are the ones who have moved our manufacturing to their country.

    October 24, 2013 at 9:05 am |
    • wizi

      Don't worry! It's just the natural process, you can't bring it back.

      October 24, 2013 at 12:52 pm |
  27. bill39

    I'm very glad to see some realization of the environmental problems China is creating by Chinese citizens. When pollution gets this bad, it must kill people. Also, the global impact must be significant.

    October 24, 2013 at 9:40 am |
  28. Ho Mai Wang

    ......too little, too late

    October 24, 2013 at 11:10 am |
  29. krehator

    I keep telling people China's success will not last forever. Their people will begin to demand more. Unions will start to form. All that cheap labor will begin to question why they are treated so poorly.

    October 25, 2013 at 5:16 pm |
  30. ✠RZ✠

    So be it, how about the rest of us just focus instead on getting off this messed up planet

    October 25, 2013 at 5:22 pm |

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