What Can a Government do to Make its People Happy?

By Editorial Board
Published: 2011-01-19

Cover, issue 503
January 17, 2011
Translated by Tang Xiangyang
Original article:

China Central Television (CCTV) recently published the results of an annual survey which revealed that 44.6 percent of Chinese people feel that they are happy, while only 11.1 percent of those who took part replied that they were either unhappy or very unhappy. Though happiness is mainly self-defined, if there are many people in a country who are unhappy, the government can not remain indifferent.

Fortunately, some local governments have already started planning to do something about it.

This year, Guangdong Province has suggested establishing a "Happy Guangdong" target - which involves the introduction of a series indices.

Governments are indeed able to do something to improve the happiness of their resident citizens.

For example, the state can provide residents with a high quality social security system. Without such a system, citizens won't have much in the way of expectations for the future or feel very happy.

They will worry that their children can't afford a good education, worry that they and their family can't afford to visit the doctor, worry that they can't afford to buy a house and even worry about where their next meal might be coming from.

Governments may also improve people's happiness by protecting the environment.

We all want to live in a place free of air pollution with clean water, instead of in polluted cities littered with rubbish.

None of us want to battle traffic jams - instead we hope to ride on a comfortable yet reasonably-priced public transport system.

Everyone also wants good service from government departments. When we go to a government office to deal with a matter, we hope that we're not met by ill-mannered civil servants who for the purpose of completing a simple task, send us everywhere only to discover that we can't find the person responsible for dealing with the issue at hand.

If the work of civil servants is conducted in this manner - we can't be happy.

These are areas in which our government can do something to lift the general level of happiness in the community.

But in reality, some gaps remain between what Chinese citizens expect of their government and the actions of the government.

For example, attempts to protect the environment are always put aside so that the project of a large corporation can go ahead.

Similarly, policies that quicken the pace of economic development are always given a greater priority than those suggestions that simply improve the lot of ordinary people but don't add to government's coffers.

We may get a clue from our government spending. Though China obtained fiscal revenue of over eight trillion yuan in 2010, not much of it has been spent on improving public welfare.

The proportion of China's budget that is allocated to social security is only 12 percent, while in developed countries and some developing countries, the ratio is over 30 percent.
China has also long promised to lift the proportion of fiscal spending allocated to education to 4 percent, but this target has never been reached.

Now the year for meeting this 4 percent target has been pushed back to 2012.

So why is it like this?

To put it simply, if our government can change its priorites so that improving the lot of ordinary people becomes its top priority, then the general level of happiness among the people will naturally lift.

A government that is aware that its right to exist stems from the will of the governed, will belong to the people. Only this kind of government can provide a "government of the people, for the people."

Additionally, governments should make it possible for citizens to supervise the way they operate - correcting and improving their behavior according to feedback from citizens.

So, to put it succinctly, only by adopting this style of governance and by having this attitide toward governing, will the citizens of a state be happy.

If you have a beautiful and clean environment, a fine quality social security system and comfortable public services - this will strengthen people's feeling of happiness.

Our government should spare no effort to realize these goals and should invest more government funds to help achieve them.

If a better income can help people to live a better life, our government should make it possible for more wealth to flow to citizens and let them enjoy more of the benefits of economic growth rather than always taking the largest slice of the cake for itself.

This editorial was edited by Paul Pennay