Well-Being in China Across Time and Space

Asher Rose
August 4, 2016 4:30 PM

China has experienced tremendous growth in recent years.  However, its growth has not spread evenly between the inland and the coastal provinces.  In my research, I am addressing whether the increase in quality of life has been evenly distributed across regions.  Zilinsky recently demonstrated convergence in GDP per capita between the provinces; poorer provinces (mostly inland) are growing faster than richer ones (mostly coastal). I find that regional convergence in China, for the most part, extends to quality of life as well. 

One good indicator of quality of life is life expectancy.  Life expectancy is easily comparable over long periods of time (unlike GDP per capita), and has an important effect on a person’s welfare.  Figure 1 shows life expectancies in each of China’s provinces.  The left graph shows data for the coastal provinces (Guangdong, Hainan, Fujian, Zhejiang, Shanghai, Jiangsu, Shandong, Hebei, and Beijing); the right for inland provinces.  Each graph scatters the 2010 values on the y-axis, against 1990 values on the x-axis.  Averages are shown by red vertical (1990) and horizontal (2010) lines.

The coastal provinces started out with a life expectancy of around 71 years, and it grew to around 77 (an increase of 6 years).  The inland provinces started at 67 and grew to 74 (an increase of 7 years).  All regions have done well, but the inland’s percentage increase was larger.  Convergence is occurring, but slowly.

Another key measure of well-being is illiteracy, shown in figure 2.  This portrays another dimension of the three components of the Human Development Index (long life, knowledge, and decent standard of living).[1]  Although illiteracy in China has gone down across the board for all provinces, it has decreased faster for the inland provinces than the coastal ones.  The coastal regions on average decreased by 15 percentage points over 22 years, and the inland decreased by 19 percentage points.  The inland provinces decreased over four percentage points faster.  However, the coastal regions still have illiteracy that is two points lower than that of the inland provinces. Again, convergence is occurring, but slowly. 

So far, it appears that while all Chinese provinces have progressed, the quality of life is higher in coastal provinces.  However, this growth has come with a downside: the environmental cost.  The inland provinces started out with roughly the same air quality as the coastal provinces, but the difference now pronounced. 

The following graph is in the same style as previous ones, but indicates the number of “good air” days per province.  This is calculated using data which includes measures of six air pollutants.[2]  Keep in mind that the Chinese standards for Grade II air quality are lax compared with the United States.  For example, the EPA standard for sulfer dioxide (SO2) air parts per million is 200, while China defines a “good day” as having less than 500 ppm of SO2.

In 2003, the inland and coastal provinces had approximately the same number of clean days of air, but by 2014 there was a significant gap.  In 2013, the city of Shijiazhuang had just 97 days of clean air, even measured by China’s lax standards.  As such, the environment is different from literacy and longevity in three respects:

  1. Inland and coastal provinces began with comparable environments
  2. Now, air quality for inland provinces is better than in the coastal provinces
  3. Hence, there is divergence between coastal and inland provinces, not convergence

The Human Development Index combines three indicators of quality of life: “a long and healthy life, being knowledgeable and have a decent standard of living” .  A previous PIIE blog showed that the income per capita across provinces is converging, and this blog showed that life expectancy and illiteracy are also converging between Chinese coastal and inland provinces.  It would appear that the human development level is converging.  However, there is a major omission: the environment.  The coastal and inland provinces are significantly diverging in terms of air quality.  The coastal provinces are now falling farther behind in air pollution.  This indicates that convergence is imperfect. It may also indicate a fundamental flaw with the Human Development Index, which uses life expectancy; if the effects of pollution of life expectancy occur with a long lag, the HDI will not accurately indicate quality of life.

Add new comment