Quality of life
Quality of life is a shorthand term for many facets of socioeconomic well-being, and the creation of various measurements for quality of life results from the effort to measure economic and social progress. Average income by itself is not a good indicator of well-being; instead, we need to have a way of assessing the health, nutrition, and education status of a population over time. The Human Development Index is one such measure, developed by the United Nations Development Programme. The term of quality of life as such was first defined by the World Health Organization as a life which reflects how people perceive their place in life, in culture and value system where they live and where they make relationships to objectives, standards or interests (ISOQL, 2008). The concept of quality of life has been imbued with many different meanings, depending on disciplinary perspectives, such as economics, environmental science, medicine, sociology, psychology, political science, and demography (Andrejovský et al., 2012). The concept of quality of life is not very consistent, and lacks consensus about its meaning (Hajduová et al., 2011).
In fact, more than 100 different definitions of quality of life have been noted in the literature; no consensus exists on a definition or on how quality of life should be measured (Hagerty et al., 2001; Morais et al., 2011). Generally, these definitions capture aspects of well-being, happiness, above-average living standards, and life satisfaction, going well beyond gross domestic product (GDP) to encompass a broader range of indicators of social and economic well-being. They include economic well-being but also factors such as housing conditions, health conditions, education opportunities, public safety, environmental conditions, freedom of expression, recreational opportunities, work environment, social interaction, and mobility.
There are numerous measurements which are focused on valuation of quality of life globally, but there are considerable differences in the methodology and results among them. Despite the diversity of the content of these indices, to the main components of examination, researchers usually include the economic, health, education, and life expectancy of the population (Beslerová & Dzuričková, 2014, p. 37). This is also relevant for the Chinese context, as shown by Knopman et al. (2015) who use a straightforward definition: Quality of life captures people’s satisfaction or happiness with their surrounding environment and living conditions. They recommend both objective and subjective measures to assess quality of life in their study of China’s Pearl River Delta to capture not only physically measurable conditions—such as the amount of green space or number of parks, air and water quality, or availability of transportation options—but also the perceptions and level of satisfaction that residents have about their cities, districts, and counties and the services and amenities available to them (Knopman et al., 2015, p. 2).
Quality of life should, therefore, be seen against the backdrop of a person’s perceptions of his or her position in life against the milieu of the individual’s culture and the prevailing societal value system of the population in the region where he or she resides. In general, though, it is intended to refer to either conditions of the environment in which people live (the natural environment and housing) and/or attributes of the population themselves (Pacione, 2003).
Determinants of quality of life
In considering what determines an individual’s subjective well-being or happiness, Diaz-Serrano (2009) states that various domains such as work conditions, the financial situation, housing, health, and the environment have an impact. The satisfaction level within each of these domains depends not only on the individual’s actual circumstances but also on his or her personal ambitions and desires in each of these domains (Easterlin, 2006). There is a fairly broad consensus in the literature that, on the individual level, life satisfaction increases with higher income or socioeconomic status, higher levels of education, age over the mid-40s, social capital (i.e., interindividual trust), religiosity, as well as family status (i.e., marriage) (see Bjørnskov et al., 2008, p. 120).
The local environment also plays a role. In particular, housing and residential satisfaction is universally seen and acknowledged by scholars as one of the most important elements that individuals regard as representative of a good overall quality of life (Baiden et al., 2011; Diaz-Serrano, 2009; Dunn, 2002; Smith et al., 2003). Møller (2001) has even gone so far as to say that housing is the most important predictor of life satisfaction. Nevertheless, residential satisfaction is one of the most elusive of these references and the perceived quality of life within neighbourhoods is also one of the most intangible measures to assess (Pacione, 2003).
While the individual economic situation, as well as circumstances of working and living are obviously important determinants of the quality of life, recent research also has pointed out the importance of macro-level social, economic, as well as institutional and political variables (see Bjørnskov et al., 2008). Particularly relevant, in this respect, is the study by Clench-Aas and Holte (2021) based on data from two waves of the European Social Survey (ESS, 2006, 2012) in 19 countries. They find that personal life satisfaction not only varies with income but is also positively associated by levels of social and political trust. While income explains most of the observed variance in personal life satisfaction, the influence of income is significantly modified by social and political trust. More precisely, “trust acts as a buffer against the effect of personal income on satisfaction with one’s personal life, and hence dampens the effects of social inequality on the sense of well-being” (Clench-Aas & Holte, 2021, p. 10). In other words: the higher social and political trust, the less important is personal income for the quality of life.
Aims of the study
Existing research thus suggests that main determinants of the quality of life are found both on the individual as well as on the contextual level. Regarding the individual level, crucial factors relate to the material conditions (i.e., financial situation), but also to the conditions at work and within the family as individual’s main primary group. At the contextual level, objective conditions of living in the place of residence are important factors. But political conditions—as expressed by people’s trust in the political and regulatory authorities—can also play a role at that level.
The objective of the study presented in this article is precisely to single out the importance of these factors on the perceived quality of life in China, aiming, in particular, to understand the role and the importance of the political conditions.
According to Kampen et al. (2006), ample empirical evidence exists that satisfaction and trust are positively correlated. Kampen et al. (2003) show a significant association between satisfaction with public service delivery and trust in government by means of a latent underlying variable. Van Ryzin et al. (2004) find strong links between overall satisfaction with public services at the local level and confidence in government. However, Van de Walle et al. (2005) provide evidence that the association between satisfaction and trust may be caused by a general attitude toward government. Other authors have also noticed this process of generalization. A common factor seems to be behind the evaluations of all institutions that are related to government (Loveless, 1997; Mishler & Rose, 1997; Stipak, 1979; Uslaner, 2002). Empirical models linking satisfaction and trust have yet to account for this common factor. Hence, some recent relevant studies have begun to investigate the role of the state in affecting subjective well-being. This line of inquiry is important because it is a fundamental premise of democratic theory that political structures and policy outcomes can significantly influence citizens’ sense of satisfaction with their lives. These findings raise the question of how public policy outcomes in general are related to well-being (Whiteley et al., 2010).
Effective public services and successful economic policies should have a large impact on subjective well-being. This is because, apart from the episodic act of voting, most people never participate in politics, with activities such as protesting and party work being the preserves of small minorities (e.g., Pattie et al., 2004). High rates of nonparticipation will limit the extent to which individuals experience procedural utility. In contrast, all citizens are recipients of public services in one form or another, so it is likely that reactions to public service delivery will have significant effects on how most people feel about their lives. A government seeking to enhance the subjective well-being of its citizens needs to ensure that public service delivery on the ground works well.
How quality of government affects residents’ life satisfaction is a seldom discussed subject in a non-democratic context. Given the emphasis on performance- or competence-based legitimacy in authoritarian states, it is interesting to test the relationship between local government performance and local residents’ life satisfaction in a non-democratic polity like China. Hence, our first hypothesis reads:
H1: Good performance of local government leads to high life satisfaction.
A trusting attitude in government should incubate a series of positive feelings among citizens, such as a belief in government accountability, a greater conviction of the honesty and uprightness of civil servants, and a firmer sense of being empowered and respected. These feelings may result in stronger trusting attitudes towards neighbours, friends, communities and even the whole society, cultivating a sense of belongingness and altruism, which will further contribute to residents’ psychological health as well as their satisfaction with life (Ekici & Koydemir, 2014; Mueller, 2009).
Trust and income strongly influence personal life satisfaction. Money is the most important. However, trust forcefully dampens the effect of income. Clench-Aas and Holte (2021) find that trust, whether it is personal, social or political, compensates for the effect of low personal income on people’s personal satisfaction with life, and hence reduces differences in sense of well-being caused by economic inequality, both between individuals, between local communities, and between countries.
Previous research has shed some light on the relationship between individual political trust and subjective well-being, suggesting that at an individual level, political trust has a positive association with individual well-being (Hudson, 2006; Liang, 2016). However, as argued by Newton and Norris (2000), instead of seeing trust as a property of individuals, perhaps it is the collective levels of trust that should be compared. Newton (2001) also suggests that political trust has the same theoretical relationship to political capital, as social trust has to social capital. In this way, political trust can be conceived as a kind of stock largely affected by governance and a contextual property of societies in which individuals live. For this reason, it is worth to know whether living in a place with higher political trust is linked to higher individual subjective well-being. If so, improving governance as a means of earning increased public trust is not only good for institutional reasons, but also beneficial to the daily lives of people within society (Fu, 2018).
Politicians, professionals, and regulators who want a satisfied electorate or population, should invest in enhancing the level of trust, both personal, social and political, in the population they are serving. This is partly because there is a direct relationship between trust and satisfaction at all socio-structural layers of society, and partly because trust in its different forms plays a strong and consistent role as a buffer against the effects of personal income on inhabitants’ personal life satisfaction, and thus dampens the effects of economic inequality on the inhabitants’ sense of well-being, and ultimately, their public mental health (Clench-Aas & Holte, 2021). Hence, we hypothesize that
H2: High political trust leads to high life satisfaction.
According to Wu and Wilkes (2017), in most countries there are systematic differences in the level of trust in national and local government that take one of three patterns. In some countries, individuals trust the national government more than local government (hierarchical trust); in others individuals trust local government more than national government; while in some countries, individuals trust both levels of government equally. In most Asian societies the majority of citizens are more trusting of local government and are less trusting of national government; the exception is China where the vast majority of citizens are more trusting of national government and are less trusting of local government (Li, 2004, 2013, 2016; Saich, 2007).
In terms of the nature of these evaluations, the evidence suggests that Chinese citizens often assess the performance of local government far more critically than they assess national government (Lewis-Beck et al., 2014). In contrast to local government, the national government is able to distance itself from unpopular policies and to take credit for those that are better liked. This privileging of the national level likely reflects the multi-level principal-agent Chinese government system that implements policies from the top down: policy implementation at the local level has a more immediate and apparent impact on everyday life (Chu et al., 2008; Li, 2016). Thus, Wu and Wilkes (2017) summed up that, the evidence about performance suggests that, if Chinese citizens’ trust is reflective of performance, then good performance should increase the inclination towards hierarchical trust. For these reasons, an insightful and all-round analysis of the impact of political trust on people’s life satisfaction in China must also take the effect of hierarchical trust on local residents’ life satisfaction into account. This effect is potentially complex, however, depending on whether life satisfaction is more strongly related to trust in national or trust in local government. But this is an open question that needs to be empirically ascertained. We, therefore, cautiously hypothesize
H3: Effects of local and national political trust on life satisfaction are different.
Empirically, this study focuses on the quality of life in one of China’s rural areas, which are rather distinct from urban areas in socioeconomic development path, lifestyle and cultural traditions. For instance, Yang and Zeng (2016) have found that the development of social trust in China’s urban and rural areas is not synchronized due to the different social networks and institutional environment of urban and rural areas. The rural residents’ trust level is higher than that of their urban compatriots. And it seems that the city is apparently losing its own trust system to regulate people’s behaviour and values while the whole society has the old and new trust system alternating. A rural setting thus appears as a particularly meaningful context to investigate the role of political trust for the quality of life.