In October the World Bank forecast that Covid-19 could push 150 million people around the world into extreme poverty.
Not so in China, where the central government’s poverty alleviation campaign went into overdrive ahead of an all-important deadline to eradicate penury in China’s poorest counties by the end of the year.
The good news is that the government did it: on November 23 the last nine poverty-stricken counties – all in the southwestern province of Guizhou – were officially removed from a list that once numbered 832.
It is, by any definition, a huge achievement. More than 850 million Chinese have emerged from extreme poverty in the last 40 years.
One can argue about how they got there in the first place. Mao-era policies didn’t help. But decades of economic liberalisation, improved infrastructure and better services have all helped hundreds of millions of people move upwards.
However, the most recent announcement does not mean poverty or even extreme poverty has been eradicated entirely in China.
For a county to be removed from the official list of ‘poverty-stricken counties’ less than 3% of its population have to be classified as extremely poor (or 2% in some richer regions). Given the size of China’s population this still means there are millions of individuals living in extreme poverty – classified as people with an income of less than Rmb4,000 ($608) a year.
Another quirk of the poverty-reduction scheme is that it focuses on the rural poor – meaning people in cities, or 60% of the 1.45 billion population, are not counted even if they are struggling to feed and clothe themselves.
China set itself a goal of eliminating extreme poverty by the start of 2021 – doing so to coincide with the centenary of the founding of the ruling Communist Party. Meeting the deadline obviously had serious importance for local officials. In order to track their progress, provincial governments went as far as calculating and publicly announcing the number of people living below the poverty line last year. At the time, Hebei province said it still had 58,000 in the category, while the more affluent Jiangsu said there were just 17 left (see WiC479).
The celebration of the news last month has been somewhat muted, given that for the above reasons most are aware this is a bit of a victory of semantics and not the ‘end’ of poverty itself. There is also the very real possibility that the counties lifted off the list in the last few years could slip back once the Party anniversary has passed next year.
Yes, many of the changes are permanent: in some cases whole villages have been relocated or rebuilt to bring them closer to work opportunities. Agricultural practices have been altered to ensure farmers are growing higher-value crops, and social services have also been extended.
But this might not be enough as many of China’s rural poor are elderly or poorly educated: for them the government policies might result in a one-time step-up but they are unlikely to function as a springboard to greater social mobility.
Nonetheless the People’s Daily stepped up to praise the govern-ment’s achievement. “This is a tangible result of China’s resolute victory in the fight against poverty, and fully reflects the significant advantages of the socialist system with Chinese characteristics,” it applauded.
Yet it went on to say that this was only the first step and that China would continue its work to improve living standards for all so it could emerge as a “modern, prosperous” society by another important centenary in 2049 – the hundred-year anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
And indeed, there is still some way to go on that front. As Premier Li Keqiang pointed out in May during his annual press conference with reporters, over 600 million Chinese still earn less than Rmb1,000 a month, which, as he said, is not enough to rent an apartment in a medium-sized city.
The public feted him for acknowledging the reality of daily life for many Chinese. But for now the propaganda chiefs want to focus on the positives, it seems.
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