In July next year China’s ruling Communist Party will mark 100 years since its founding. Connected to the centenary is a goal to make China a “moderately prosperous society”, or, to put it another way, to bring an end to the worst of the country’s poverty.
With the deadline looming, the provinces have been releasing their poverty statistics.
Hubei declared it still had 58,000 people living below the poverty line, Shanxi had 21,000 and Inner Mongolia 16,000.
But it was Jiangsu’s ultra-precise declaration that there were only 17 genuinely poor people left in the coastal province that captured the public’s attention. There was a general sense of disbelief at the low number – which would not even suffice to field a couple of football teams.“This figure is too precise to be true,” remarked a sceptical Sina Weibo user while others quoted slogans from the Great Leap Forward to show how they thought Jiangsu officials were giving out embellished data to impress officialdom.
In all probability the figure is true, but misunderstood.
China’s push to eradicate poverty by 2021 is actually a drive to end rural poverty. If a person lives in a city – as 60% of the population now does – they aren’t counted in the benchmark. Secondly, the setting of income thresholds for the term vary from province to province, although the national definition of the poverty level – which each province adopts as a baseline – is actually higher than the international standard of $1.90 a day, as set by the World Bank.
In reality Jiangsu eradicated absolute poverty in 2015 and is now working on eliminating relative poverty, the next step for the nation as a whole, according to officials.
Absolute poverty in China is defined as net annual incomes of Rmb2,300 or below using 2010 prices – which translates to a yearly income of about Rmb4,000 today.
Jiangsu, having achieved that minimum for all of its 80 million people in 2015, now uses a higher threshold of Rmb6,000 ($872.21) a year.
Provincial officials defended their statistics saying that under the current Five-Year Plan they are obliged to keep meticulous data on poverty relief.
“Those were our figures as of December 31,” the Beijing News quoted a Jiangsu official as saying.
He added that the 17 people – all of working age – belonged to six different families and that four of the individuals were currently unwell. “We can’t simply give money… they will fall back into poverty next year,” he explained. “We need to build capacity so people can stay out of poverty,” he added.
Chinese President Xi Jinping made the eradication of rural poverty by 2021 one of his key goals and local officials have had to sign pledges to meet the required targets.
Urbanisation has helped, with the relocation of some of the country’s poorest rural folk to towns and cities where higher incomes are possible.
However, one of the greatest obstacles in getting rural poverty figures down was the prevalence of corrupt public servants.
In 2017 the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection brought almost 50,000 cases against people who had neglected their anti-poverty duties or worse, embezzled funds dedicated to the policy.
The race is now on to lift the last six million people out of poverty in China – a goal the country will certainly meet given the symbolism of achieving it in the Party’s hundredth year.
Yet even as local governments announce ever diminishing numbers of people in the worst financial straits, there was a stark reminder that extreme poverty still exists when a 24 year-old women died from complications associated with long term malnourishment.
Wu Huayan first came to public attention last October when her classmates carried her to hospital. Wu – from the southwestern province of Guizhou, traditionally one of China’s poorest – weighed just 21kg when she was admitted and had been surviving on a food budget of just Rmb2 a day for years.
Her life was a tough one. Although she had been receiving a small government stipend of Rmb300 a month, she was working two jobs, as well as studying and caring for her disabled brother (her parents died when she was young). Charities raised over $100,000 to pay for her care but she died on Tuesday, to the anger of many Chinese. “That’s impossible. There is no poverty in 2020,” seethed one sarcastically.
“A girl of only 21kg expected to care for her younger brother. Isn’t the local governor ashamed? Where is your sense of responsibility?” reprimanded another.
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