China started its poverty alleviation efforts in earnest in 1986, when it established a specific government department, the Leading Group on Economic Development in Poor Areas under the State Council. It marked a shift in the way China dealt with poverty to an institutional approach. Li Xiaoyun, a member of the advisory committee to the leading group and a professor at China Agricultural University in Beijing, told NewsChina that China chose to focus on development as a way to alleviate poverty because the targeted areas were mostly concentrated in rural areas; therefore the best way to tackle entrenched poverty was through measures to boost economic growth.
In terms of development methods, China adopted the World Bank’s approach to comprehensive rural development. In the early 1990s, the World Bank supported poverty relief projects in Southwest China by boosting incomes through comprehensive rural development, including new infrastructure such as hydropower and roads, and social projects such as education, health, housing and industry.
Since 1995, China has formulated its regional anti-poverty strategy based on counties identified as poor and established a mechanism for tasks in those key counties, followed by heavy investment. In 1988, the central government set up a poverty alleviation fund of 1 billion yuan (US$149m) which has continued to increase. By 2013, the fund reached 40.6 billion yuan (US$6.06b). Poor counties received tens of millions or even billions of yuan in financial subsidies every year, amounting to several times the total annual revenue of a poor county in China.
Yet this overarching approach meant some still missed out. Zhang Qi, director of the China Poverty Alleviation Research Institute of Beijing Normal University, told the reporter that targeting a whole region risks leaving some impoverished people overlooked. Lei Ming, president of the Institute for the Development of Poor Areas at Peking University, pointed out that blanket poverty alleviation without specific targets could benefit high-income farmers in poor areas more than impoverished households, which are constrained due to lack of personal capability or agency. Factors include inadequate education, the inability to advocate for themselves, or because of environmental restrictions, like remoteness, living on degraded or marginal land and climate issues.
On November 3, 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping signaled another shift in the way China deals with extreme poverty when he proposed a targeted strategy in a speech given during a visit to Hunan Province.
However, before efforts can begin, establishing an accurate way to measure poverty is crucial. Many countries and the World Bank use income as a determinant of poverty, which is usually based on national or local GDP. But GDP can be a crude measure, so other development agencies look at other, non-monetary data as well.
On secondment to Ribu to work in poverty alleviation, civil servant He Xin told NewsChina that a system to register the poor was developed. Officials in Ribu collected data on the population, labor force and the sources of income for each impoverished household.
The national standards to identify poverty have also evolved. Zhang Qi told the reporter that the first NPL was based on minimum living needs converted into income, and then it used combined income and consumption to set new standards. After 2010, China included healthcare, education and housing expenses in the standards.
Targeted poverty alleviation requires an accurate strategy to pinpoint causes and solutions. In Ribu, some of the main causes of poverty include disability due to poor health, disasters or injury, and lack of jobs. He Xin told NewsChina that local authorities tried to provide public service jobs for poor households, such as forest rangers, grassland keepers, and river or street cleaners. Poor families where no one is in paid employment receive a subsistence allowance from national social security funds. In 2018, the urban subsistence level was 563 yuan (US$83) per person a month, and 382 yuan (US$56.8) per person in rural areas. For households above the NPL, but which are still poor, the local government provides supplementary healthcare insurance to help with medical bills and is trying to improve the local economy through setting up industrial ventures.
According to He, the data platform for the registered poor is dynamic. “If people become poor due to illness or natural disasters, the system updates quickly,” he said. NewsChina learned from the Sichuan Provincial Bureau of Poverty Alleviation and Development that Sichuan has established a province-wide big data platform for overcoming poverty. Through annual adjustments, the province can ensure the accurate positioning of poverty alleviation objectives. Lei Ming said that the top-down big data information system, from the central government to county level, is very accurate.
Many poverty reduction experts told NewsChina that the assessment and process to remove an area from below the poverty line are closely combined, and a third party will assess whether the poverty alleviation goal has been attained. In 2018, for example, the city of Barkam which includes Ribu, passed both the Sichuan provincial- and Aba prefecture-level inspection followed by a third-party evaluation, before being confirmed as having met its poverty alleviation target.