Domestic Affairs

Have Guangzhou's youth found Shangri-La?

By Patrick Mattimore (
Updated: 2011-05-11 15:22
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There is a widely circulated story in the Chinese press this week about the results of a survey conducted in April by the Guangzhou-based, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Macao Youth Research Institute.

Nearly all the media reporting the story have headlined the survey results by reporting that there is "widespread" happiness among young people in Guangzhou. The news sources report that most of the young people in Guangzhou say they are happy. But is that an accurate account of what the survey found? Not by a long shot.

Putting aside the issue of whether the Institute can be a disinterested party in surveying youth from its own community, and the fact that several community leaders from Guangzhou quickly jumped in to explain why the youths in that city are so happy, examine media reports about the survey.

Unfortunately, none of the news reporters provided links to the original survey questions and results, but even within the media's own reports, it is obvious that the findings are being misrepresented by the headlines.

The surveyors in Guangzhou asked respondents, whose ages ranged from 17 to 35, to indicate on a scale from 0, absolute misery, to 100, complete bliss, to rate their own happiness. Slightly more than 90% gave themselves a score above 60, and the media concluded en masse that the results demonstrated that "most of the young people" in that city are happy.

The first problem is with the arbitrariness of the score of 60. Since no one really knows what a respondent meant when she assigned her happiness quotient a value of 70, for example, it is impossible to tell what the numbers mean. Less than 30% of respondents' scores were above 80, so if that is instead the arbitrary cutoff for happiness, the conclusion is very different.

But there is a more basic problem. In addition to being asked to rank their own happiness on the rather meaningless scale, participants were asked, "Do you feel happy?" In response to that question, 50.9% of the women said yes but only 39.5% of the men said yes. Therefore, combining the men and women, a clear majority did not feel happy, as the media are reporting.

It may seem frivolous to worry about a life satisfaction survey. The larger problem, however, is that when the media slips up on the small stories it makes it more difficult to trust that the media will get the big-picture stuff right.

There are plenty of people out there commissioning and conducting surveys with the intent of eventually influencing, and perhaps, manipulating public opinion. One of the media's primary tasks is to act as a watchdog to ensure that survey stakeholders are not allowed to spin results in directions that they cannot substantiate.

The young people in Guangzhou may or may not be happier than other young people in China, but they are certainly not as happy as the media suggest. The media's gaffe should remind us that it's a good idea to keep an eye on the watchdogs, too.

Patrick Mattimore is a fellow at the American-based Institute for Analytic Journalism and an adjunct law instructor in the Temple University/Tsinghua University LLM program in Beijing. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the China Daily website.