To get rich is glorious? Money can’t buy happiness for China or the wider world

China’s rise over the last several decades has seen dramatic growth in the income and wealth of its citizens. But the expanding economy has not been universally good for its people, nor has it always benefited the wider world. Indeed, the nation’s embrace of capitalism and growth at any cost has left many feeling miserable. More money has often failed to buy much happiness, and frequently it has done the opposite. This paradox can be explained, at least in part, by growing economic inequality. 

A business district in Shenzhen, China. File photo: QuantFoto, via Flickr.

Another downside of increasing wealth in China, one that should be a global concern, is the rise of material consumption and its bedfellow – consumerism. The nation’s consumption is driving adverse environmental changes around the world. This raises an important question: is rising wealth, and the newfound ability of hundreds of millions of Chinese to consume to their hearts’ content, worth the resulting inequality, discontent and environmental destruction?

With wealth comes inequality

The World Bank has characterised China’s economic rise over the last four decades as “the fastest sustained expansion by a major economy in history.” It has lifted more than 700 million people out of poverty. About half of the population are now members of the global middle class, defined as those able to meet their needs and also have disposable income for savings and the consumption of additional goods and services.

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