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Chinese Experiment Seeks Secrets To Happiness
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Chinese Experiment Seeks Secrets To Happiness

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Chinese Experiment Seeks Secrets To Happiness
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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Happiness is apparently hard to come by in China. At least that's the view of the country's best-selling book last year. It's called "China is Unhappy." Now people all over China are trying to figure out how their fellow citizens can become happier. NPR's Louisa Lim reports from Beijing.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Happy China")

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoke)

LOUISA LIM: These are the happy hosts of a show called "Happy China," a Chinese-language program. But how happy is China? Surveys are confusing: 87 percent of Chinese people are satisfied with the way things are going in their country, according to a Pew Global Attitudes Survey. That makes China the most satisfied country by far out of all they surveyed.

But then look at a European Union survey: It placed China at 128 out of 150 countries in terms of happiness. And one recent survey of 50,000 college students showed a surprising level of gloom.

Mr. KAI-PING PENG (UC Berkeley): Sixty percent of people are not very happy about life, and the sources of that is the mistrust of the government.

LIM: Kai-Ping Peng from UC Berkeley worked on that student survey. He says inequality and environmental issues were other major sources of unhappiness, as well as the lack of channels for expressing dissatisfaction.

Mr. PENG: This society emphasize stabilities. This society emphasize too much harmonies. So the ways they do that is by heavy-handed control. So try to put everything down, or swept under the rug without solve the problems. People in China need to have channels that people can openly express dissatisfactions.

LIM: In recent months, China's seen a shocking outlet to that dissatisfaction: a series of six stabbings in schools this year, leaving 20 people - mostly children - dead, and more than 80 injured. While this is clearly a mental health issue, the Chinese press is also labeling it social terrorism. Zhang Jianxin, the deputy director of the Chinese Academy of Science's Institute of Psychology, outlines the profile of a social terrorist.

Mr. ZHANG JIANXIN (Deputy Director, Chinese Academy of Science's Institute of Psychology): (Through translator) It's someone who can't resolve their problems, who receives no sympathy or help from society and who might start thinking of revenge. And the simplest way of taking revenge on society is to target the weakest members of society: children.

LIM: So how to decrease that social alienation and build a happier China? At a recent conference here, psychologists tried to address this problem.

Unidentified Man #2: The Buddha(ph) is in your heart.

LIM: One answer is that money can buy happiness here. According to research, for those Chinese earning less than $450 a month, every extra cent increases their happiness. Beyond that, it becomes more complex. Psychologists say the foundations for happiness include political and social participation and good governance. And one city is trying in true Chinese, top-down fashion to make its citizens happy.

Unidentified Man #3: The answer is Happy Jiangyin.

LIM: Happy Jiangyin is the name of the project. Instead of just aiming for economic growth, for the past four years, this wealthy city in Jiangsu province has come up with a list of magic ingredients it believes add up to happiness. Besides healthcare and employment, it has such diverse targets as how much people should donate to charity and how many sports facilities there should be per head, per square meter.

Mr. XU DONGQING (Jiangyin's Communist Party Committee, Head of Propoganda): (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: In a speech, Jiangyin's Communist party committee's head of propaganda, Xu Dongqing, even announced democracy is good. However, Mr. Xu told me he wasn't referring to Western multiparty democracy as we know it.

Mr. DONGQING: (Through translator) The Communist party is the ruling party, and other parties offer advice and suggestions. Under this system, we are trying to further use people's wisdoms and suggestions to help the government do better.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #4: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: It's worth mentioning that Jiangyin is one of the richest places in China. Last year, its average urban disposable income was more than $11,000: four times higher than the national average. So how happy is Happy Jiangyin? I asked Robb Willer, a University of California sociologist who visited the city for his impressions.

Mr. ROBB WILLER (Sociologist, University of California): We saw a lot of things that I think would be unambiguously positive: the construction of civic centers and senior centers, reduced the levels of economic inequality. But, you know, we were also left with some questions: How hard is it to become a member of this city?

LIM: It's difficult to know if Jiangyin is a Potemkin village for show, or if this high-profile project may give us a glimpse of what China might look like in the future. And as for knowing whether China really is happy, psychologists say that even defining happiness in a Chinese context is challenging, let alone measuring happiness here.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.

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