No, Archbishop Sentamu, China is not ‘happier and more equal’ than Britain, by any measure

The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu
The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu

Is China fairer and happier than Britain? Archbishop John Sentamu thinks so.

The Archbishop of York told listeners at a Salvation Army that  “You need to be a fairer society to be happy – at the moment, Britain is not happy. If you look at the figures globally, China is happiest, then Japan, then the Netherlands – because they are the most equal societies.”

I’d love to know where he’s getting this stuff. He’s right on one thing: there is good evidence to show that beyond a certain level of development, happiness is better linked to equality than it is to absolute wealth. Where he’s completely wrong is to suggest that China is a highly equal society, or that Britain is less happy than China.

First things first. One easy way of measuring income equality is to see how much the richest earn compared to the poorest. The UN’s Development Report has made that comparison for various countries: it found that the UK’s richest 10 per cent earn 13.8 times as much as the poorest 10 per cent. Which is quite a lot. But China wins: its richest 10 per cent earn a whopping 21.6 times as much as the poorest 10 per cent. If you’re wondering whether it’s just a small number of extremely poor and/or extremely rich people in China distorting that figure, the story is the same if you expand it to the richest and poorest 20 per cent: China’s wealthy are more than 12 times as well-paid as the poor, compared to seven times as much in the UK. The CIA’s World Factbook also looked at the 10 per cent figures, and found that very similar figures to those of the UN: 21.8 compared to 13.6.

Another inequality measure is the “Gini coefficient”, a mathematical representation of the frequency of different levels of income, in which 0 equals perfect equality (everyone has the same income) and 100 equals perfect inequality (one person has all the income). The World Bank and the CIA both found China to be more unequal than the UK; the data in some cases are fairly old, but the CIA’s information shows a sharp increase in China’s inequality between 2007 and 2009. I’ve included full figures at the bottom of the piece.

It’s fair, I think, to say that there is no sense in which China is a “more equal” society. But is it happier? Well: I’d love to see where Sentamu is getting his figures from, let’s put it like that. There are two major happiness measures that I’m aware of, the “Happy Planet Index” and the “Satisfaction With Life” index. The Happy Planet Index says that China has a happiness-rating of 44.7 out of 100, compared to Britain’s 47.9. I have no idea how they measured it (and, as Ed West points out, it also seems to think that Syria [47.1] is happier than France [46.5], so however they measured it is strange indeed). The Satisfaction With Life index 2006 ranks Britain 41st out of 178 countries. China ranked 82nd. Japan, another country that the Archbish approves of, is 90th. (The Netherlands are both happier and more equal than Britain, for the record, by some distance.)

Again, I don’t know where Archbishop Sentamu is getting his information from. But I rather suspect it’s a combination of half-remembered facts, a vague approval of the “wisdom of the East” and a sense that Britain is going to the dogs. But as far as I can tell, he’s completely wrong. And it’s worth noting that, in Britain, while things could get a lot better, we’re pretty happy, not too terribly unequal, and best of all, unlike China, we’re allowed to vote for different political parties, and complain about things on internet blogs, and we very rarely get put in prison for political beliefs. We’ve got it OK here, really, and while Archbishop Sentamu may be right that there are things we can learn from China, how to make a happier and more equal society is not one of them.


As promised, those inequality figures:

Ratio of income of richest 10pc compared to poorest 10pc (UN Development Report 2009)
China: 21.6
United Kingdom: 13.8

Ratio of income of richest 20pc compared to poorest 20pc (UN Development report 2008)
China: 12.2
UK: 7.2

Ratio of income of richest 10pc compared to poorest 10pc (CIA World Factbook)
China: 21.8 (2008)
UK: 13.6 (1999)

Gini coefficient (World Bank)
China: 42.5 (2005)
United Kingdom: 36.0 (1998)

Gini coefficient (CIA World Factbook)
China: 48.0 (2009, up from 41.5 in 2007)
United Kingdom: 34.0 (2005)


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