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THE WAR ON POVERTY

As China looks to meet its goal of eradicating extreme poverty by the end of 2020, the experience China has gained can provide a reference for the globe

By NewsChina Updated Jan.1

People participate in a governmentfunded training program to make birdcages, Kala Village, Guizhou Province, December 20, 2018

Ribu, a remote settlement tucked away in the mountains of Southwest China’s Sichuan Province, has been trapped in poverty for decades. It covers an area of 956 square kilometers, but there are only 3,579 inhabitants, and it takes at least six hours to reach the county town by car, if the mountain roads are not cut off. According to Luo Erte, Party secretary of Ribu, the settlement used to have 96 households and 424 people recognized as being in extreme poverty, measured by an annual household income below China’s national poverty line (NPL).  

The 2019 NPL was set at an annual per capita income of less than 3,750 yuan (US$560). Since 2014, efforts started in Ribu to combat extreme poverty, and by 2019, the annual per capita income of villagers in Ribu had reached 14,512 yuan (US$2,165), indicating the town had been lifted out of poverty according to the national standard.  

The fight against poverty in Ribu is a microcosm of China’s national poverty alleviation project. According to the World Bank’s international poverty standard of US$1.9 per person per day, since China’s reform and opening-up started in 1978, China has helped more than 800 million people lift themselves out of poverty, accounting for over 70 percent of the total global poverty reduction during the same period. The country looks on course to eliminate absolute poverty by the end of 2020. 

Targeted Effort
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.  

Villagers from Atulier’er Village, Zhaojue Town, Sichuan Province, walk down a new metal staircase which replaced a rickety wooden construction, the only way children could get between their school and home, May 2020. So far, 31 households have moved to Zhaojue

Official Vows
In Ribu, according to Luo Erte, anti-poverty initiatives are incorporated into the annual development plan of the town and poverty alleviation is the main objective for officials. This includes infrastructure improvement, attracting appropriate projects to the area, and applying for funds. In Chinas anti-poverty initiative, the State implements anti-poverty strategies from central to local administrations, and the anti-poverty plan is integrated into the national development scheme. Previously, China formulated the National Plan for Combating Poverty (1994-2000), the Outline for Poverty Alleviation and Development in Rural Areas (2001-2010) and the Outline for Poverty Alleviation and Development in Rural Areas (2011-2020). These medium- and long-term development plans have clear objectives, as well as financial and organizational guarantees, which means that China has put in place an institutional framework to combat poverty at the national level. 

At the provincial level, the rural poverty alleviation and development outline issued by Sichuan and Jiangxi provinces, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, and other areas clearly require poverty alleviation and development to be incorporated into the local economic and social development strategy and overall plan. 

Lei Ming believes that institutional poverty alleviation is vital to China’s poverty reduction process. The advantages of institutionalizing anti-poverty efforts are obvious, said Tan Xuewen, secretary general of the Center for Poverty Research of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, who added that this can help avoid the conventional market tendency of resources and opportunities rarely reaching remote and backward places.  

Another advantage is efficiency. With the blessing of institutional advantages and political leadership, China has demonstrated its strong ability to mobilize government and social forces in poverty alleviation efforts. Encouraged by the central government, provinces or cities in eastern developed regions are designated to help 10 provinces in China’s western underdeveloped regions. In 2019 alone, the eastern region invested 22.9 billion yuan (US$3.42b) in financial aid, mobilized 6.5 billion yuan (US$969m) in donations from the public and NGOs, and helped sell 48.3 billion yuan (US$7.2b) of special agricultural products grown in impoverished areas.  

For example in 2019, 61 counties in 17 cities in Guangdong and Zhejiang provinces established partner assistance ties with 68 poor counties in Sichuan Province. Many party and government officials participated in poverty alleviation activities. As of 2019, more than 906,000 officials from State-owned enterprises and above-county level administrations were seconded to poor villages to help achieve poverty alleviation goals.  

Like tens of thousands of poverty alleviation officials, He Xin’s main role is to attract poverty alleviation projects. There was little manufacturing or industry in Ribu, so he encouraged villagers to grow traditional crops and valuable Chinese herbal medicines, and set out to increase profits by attracting food processing businesses. His duties include marketing the products, branding and transportation.  

Grassroots officials like He are at the end of the chain of responsibility. It is a military-style system with tasks distributed at various levels, right down to the grassroots. At the Central Conference on Poverty Alleviation and Development held in November 2015, Party and government leaders of 22 provinces, districts and cities in central and western regions signed a letter of responsibility for combating poverty. The pressure is passed down, from province, to city, county, township and village levels.  

Provincial and prefecture departments have an assessment mechanism for county and township levels and have set up a monitoring system, Luo Erte said.  

Many experts told NewsChina that the assessment mechanism for poverty alleviation is aimed at quantifying the actions taken and their effectiveness. Indicators are used to check and verify poverty alleviation officials with annual assessments and overall assessment. Assessments include accurate identification of poor households, accuracy of help and poverty alleviation fund use.  

Gun Yinyun (left) teaches Wei Shuli from the Miao ethnic group standard Chinese pronunciation in Wuying Miao Village, Guizhou Province, May 8, 2020

Volunteer teacher Gao Jie (center) celebrates at a farewell party, Rongshui, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, July 22, 2020

Social Mobility
In the early stages of China’s poverty alleviation strategy, the government was the dominant force, issuing highly centralized administrative instructions. As the campaign progressed, other organizations such as NGOs played a more important role.  

At the end of 2017, the government issued a document titled “Extensively Guiding and Mobilizing Social Organizations to Participate in Overcoming Poverty.” 

Luo Erte told NewsChina that Ribu has put together a dedicated team to connect with enterprises, NGOs and other organizations.  

In Lei Ming’s opinion, in the process of overcoming poverty in China, the government’s leadership model is neither arbitrary nor rigid, but flexibly dominant. “When the scale of poverty is huge and beyond society’s ability to deal with it, it is the government which has to pay for and facilitate it, although for more isolated pockets of poverty, other organizations or groups [like NGOs] can get involved instead,” Lei said.  

Under this government-dominated model, cooperation between organizations and authorities affects how effective poverty alleviation will be. 

At the end of 2014, Li Xiaoyun, a professor at China Agricultural University, started a poverty alleviation project in a Yao ethnic village in Mengla County, Yunnan Province. According to Li, Hebian Village was extremely poor and there were few ways for villagers to generate income. Li tried to encourage participation and enthusiasm for his goal, which was to build a small conference and leisure center. His project became part of Mengla County’s poverty alleviation plan. After the Yao-style center opened, tourism began to flourish, and income from the project began to flow into the local economy, which in turn raised the average income. Along with a new 4G network, roads and other infrastructure, the government has invested over 15 million yuan (US$2.24m) into poverty alleviation plans for the area.  

Li told the reporter that the secret of the project’s success was “notcompeting with the government,” innovation, and doing “what the government thinks it can’t.” Li believes that while social organizations are important to poverty governance, they cannot replace the government. Other social groups should cooperate with the government rather than dominate efforts.  

Broadly, government-led poverty alleviation is effective in solving widespread and concentrated poverty, while poverty alleviation which is market-led or managed by groups like NGOs has more advantages in professionalism and efficiency. Tan Xuewen believes that after 2020, market mechanisms will inevitably become a key force and the role of society and other groups needs to be further strengthened. 

There are 757,000 NGOs and GONGOs (Government-organized NGOs) in China, but their potential is yet to be fully tapped. Civil organizations are better placed to address some social transformation issues, such as education.  

Adream Foundation is an NGO focusing on poverty alleviation through providing educational help in rural areas. In recent years, according to director-general of the foundation Pang Zongping, 1,390 multimedia classrooms have been built in 242 poor counties, costing 203 million yuan (US$30.25m). Zhang Xia, general manager of Adream Foundation’s school services department, told NewsChina that the organization raised half of their total funds, while the other half comes through government procurement of social services. Local authorities provided policy support. Pang added that the government should offer more lenient policy support to facilitate the growth of NGOs.  

The first group of 26 households from Atulie’er Village move into their new houses in Zhaojue, Liangshan Yi Autnomous Prefecture, Sichuan May 12, 2020

End in Sight
If China achieves its goal, it will be the first developing country to complete the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal No. 1, set in 2015, to end poverty in all its forms by 2030. In February 2017, at the 53rd Munich Security Conference, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stated that China was the world record holder for poverty eradication over the past 10 years. In the four years from 2013 to 2016, 55.64 million people had lifted themselves out of extreme poverty in China. 

China’s anti-poverty program has been praised by the UN, the World Bank and other international institutions. However, turning over the “China Plan,” the particularity of China’s centralized system makes its methodology very different from poverty reduction policies in countries like Brazil, India and Indonesia. Li Xiaoyun said that the “China Plan” benefits from two characteristics - promoting economic growth and being government-led.  

Sub-Saharan Africa has seen a disconnect between poverty reduction and economic growth. Nigeria, the biggest economy on the African continent, has gained global attention. However, according to the World Poverty Clock, as of February 2019, 91.16 million Nigerians, nearly half the national population, were living in extreme poverty. According to Li, in countries like Nigeria the main driver of economic growth comes from capital-intensive industries such as mining and electronic communications services, which cannot provide those living in poverty with sufficient employment. 

Lei Ming believes that the biggest difference between China’s fiscal poverty reduction policy and other developing countries is that there is an effective governance system.  

Many experts NewsChina interviewed agreed that China’s poverty reduction experience has Chinese characteristics but can be promoted universally.  

Dominated by the government and promoted by the political agenda of the ruling party, China’s poverty alleviation project depends on the combination of development-oriented initiatives as well as ensuring a minimum subsistence allowance. More importantly, it is necessary to make strategic and progressive adjustments to the overall poverty alleviation plan at different stages. 

“Strong political will is more vital than vision for both central and local governments in the fight against poverty. That is the prerequisite for all countries to succeed in poverty alleviation,” Tan Xuewen said. 

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