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Economy

We've come a long way, baby: China report

White paper appears aimed at quelling popular discontent with dazzling stats

SHANGHAI -- The Chinese government wants its citizens to know how good they have it, and it has published a 20,000-letter report to prove it.

Titled "The Right to Development: China's Philosophy, Practice and Contribution," the government white paper, the first of its kind, details changes in the country's culture, politics, economy and other areas over the past 30-40 years.

Today, it's bumper-to-bumper traffic as China has become the world's largest auto market.

For example, it says per capita disposable income of urban households increased from 343 yuan ($50 at current rate) in 1978 to about 31,000 yuan in 2015. The fatality rates for newborn babies and pregnant women, meanwhile, have plunged. The paper attributes the falls to an increase in the national budget to improve hygiene to 4 trillion yuan from 11 billion yuan.

The report also mentions the steep increase in auto sales over the past few decades. Thirty years ago, bicycles far outnumbered cars, most of which were small models such as the Volkswagen Santana. Today, China easily leads the world in new car sales, with car ownership topping 95 million units. Mobile phones, too, have become ubiquitous, with 95% of the population owning one.

Why now?

For this reporter, who began covering China after its economic transformation was well underway, it is intriguing to see how much the country has changed. But I am curious as to why the government suddenly feels the need to look back on its past and boast about its development.

High-growth periods create a situation in which a large chunk of the population feels a bump in living standards more acutely than their parents or when they were younger. When the boom ends, the people who have grown accustomed to a certain level of affluence start comparing their living conditions with those in other countries and with their wealthier compatriots.

China is now in the stage where its citizens are beginning to compare their levels of happiness and satisfaction horizontally, rather than vertically or with those in the past.

Many Chinese travel to Japan, and a number of my Chinese acquaintances who have been there sing Japan's praises when they get home and complain about how poorly China stacks up.

China's economy has developed with breathtaking speed, but many problems remain, including the massive concentration of wealth among the privileged and the lack of freedom of speech.

The white paper, issued by the State Council in December 2016, appears aimed at legitimizing the reign of the Chinese Communist Party by showing how it has protected the people's right to development.

But the economic slowdown means people are not feeling much of a change in living standards these days. This is leading to growing discontent as people increasingly compare themselves against their peers. The report is intended to show them that their lives are better than ever. It is doubtful, however, that such an obvious strategy will work.

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