Poverty in China

  • The Chinese way of poverty alleviation has emerged as a widely replicable model

Aug 8, 2018-

The story of a poverty-stricken Miao community family of Liao Yenfi in a village in Hunan province moved all of us. His father died very early and his mother had to take the responsibility of the four-member family. Owing to stark poverty, they could never eat meat. Once his mother found a piece of meat outside her home. She cooked and served it to the family. Liao was about to eat his first treat, but his mother forcedly removed it from his mouth saying the piece of meat could have been poisoned to kill a stray dog. Liao worked hard and later became a famous fast food meat vendor in Guangzhou.

Though there are various estimates of people below the poverty line in China, the Chinese way of poverty alleviation has gradually emerged as a widely replicable model and also been a subject of critical scrutiny. While addressing the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in October 2017, when President Xi Jinping mentioned that “more than 60 million people have been lifted out of poverty in the last five years”, no one was really surprised. Such incredible feats had already occurred in China. A decade back, the World Bank while revisiting the ‘dollar a day’ global poverty yardstick concluded that ‘some 407 million Chinese citizens rose out of poverty’ during the 14-year period of 1990-2004.

The Mao Era

How did it happen, particularly after what Jung Chang and Jon Halliday wrote in their volume Mao: The Unknown Story (2005) about the ‘deaths of over 70 million in peace time’ during Chairman Mao’s conflict-ridden Cultural Revolution decade of 1966-76? What injected that spirit of ‘building socialism with Chinese characteristics’ in the leader who Henry Kissinger (On China, 2011) calls ‘the indestructible Deng’. What triggered that flicker of imagination and confidence in Deng Xiaoping’s team when they took over the responsibility of transforming China into a ‘moderately prosperous’ society in 1979. Is it the fact that Chinese society and communities had hit the rock bottom of suffering and misery during the last decade of Mao’s regime and it forced them to emerge out of this deathly morass. What were the strategies used and what kind of institutional and delivery systems were put in place to attain these incredible achievements?

There are clear vision, specific structural interventions and also designing of sound trickling down mechanisms of higher growth regime which are broadly attributed to this success story. The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) set the deadline that by the end of the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20) it would achieve Deng Xiaoping’s goal of establishing ‘a society in which people lead a fairly comfortable life’. This was actually envisioned and reiterated by the 16th CPC National Congress in 2002.

Like in other countries, identification of poverty-ridden households is a challenge in China. Red tapism and lip service aside, Xi Jinping emphatically stated that “grassroots officials are so swamped by these reams of forms (distributed to potential beneficiaries) that they have no time to actually visit rural households to go fact finding and the impoverished people cannot make head nor tail of the complex forms with so many sections to fill in, which, worse still, are full of incomprehensible terminology. Such practices must be corrected”.

Party vs government hierarchy

There are both governmental and party based trickling down mechanism right from Beijing to a county in Xinxiang province. In this parallel and competitive delivery mechanism, the governmental hierarchy (federal, provincial and local) and party structure (top to bottom) work in tandem at each level of development interventions. They are accountable and transparent to each other. Since the party structure at the grass roots level is also fairly well versed with the realities around, the type of interventions, identification of poverty-ridden households and reaching them the measures of various benefits are done rather smoothly. The County Party committees are, therefore, designated as the headquarters of the poverty elimination campaigns. Party secretaries take overall charge of poverty elimination that includes coordinating schedules, launching projects, allocating funds, assigning personnel and implementing projects.

In the monitoring and evaluation of each of these welfare and asset creating measures, the reporting mechanism from county and municipality upward finally leads to hierarchical head which happens to be common to both government structure and the party machineries, i.e. the President of China and CPC. This single command mechanism is something unique, scientifically organised and effective despite

several drawbacks.

It is where Xi Jinping promised that ‘during the critical phase of the battle against poverty in impoverished counties, party committee secretaries and county governors should remain steadfast in their posts. Outstanding ones will be eligible for promotion after the campaign is over’. He also warned that ‘we must be firm in removing those who are slacking and ensure that village party branches perform a decisive role in this battle. We should crack down on village despots according to law and guard against their interference in the operation if local government’.

Interestingly it is not exclusive government and party structures that play the role. There are instances of ‘seismic shift’ when Asian Development Bank-funded poverty alleviation projects in 2008 were channelled through NGOs in the mountain villages of Jiangxi province. These people who live in hard-to-reach clusters require highly targeted support. These are severely impoverished areas which act as ‘test and training grounds for the officials’. Xi Jinping called for concentrating all strength to fight poverty as he believes ‘strength is weakened once divided’. The focus has been on basic needs including access to compulsory education, medical care and safe housing, infrastructure facilities and agricultural developments and investments by government financial agencies.

The instruction is quite clear when it states that ‘the capital market should make it possible for more enterprises in these areas to go public and insurance companies should also lower premiums for these areas’. It integrates special projects, corporate support and social assistance. The aim is to ensure that the rate of increase of per capita disposable income in poverty-stricken areas is higher than the national average. Relocation of more impoverished people living under adverse natural conditions and guaranteeing social security assistance for families who are unable to escape poverty through business driven poverty alleviation or employment assistance programmes have been vital.

East-west diversion

Another impressive strategy has been that the relatively more developed eastern region would pair up with areas in the laggard western region in cooperative programmes. This included the now popular programme of ‘10,000 enterprises helping 10,000 villages’ initiated by private enterprises.

There has been a moral, philosophical and humane element in the entire drive where the agencies are instructed to motivate the impoverished to eliminate poverty through acquiring knowledge, improving organisation and leadership and arousing their aspirations based on the folktale that a ‘weak bird takes flight early’. Xi Jinping aptly puts it as first ‘take wing’ and then ‘leave the nest’. The message is clear, not to depend upon external efforts only, but to have a desire to fly. Here the creative ability among the poor actually finds a space to play its role.

Fully aware of critical public scrutiny, Xi Jinping once said, “Poverty line should not be lowered. Fake poverty reduction or reduction only in figures is not allowed. We should conduct the strictest possible evaluation of poverty elimination and implement a reporting and oversight system for annual poverty reduction results. We should strengthen supervision and reinforce accountability for fraud and falsification.”

- Lama is a senior professor in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and has been associated with the Institute of South Asian Studies, Sichuan University as a high end expert

Published: 08-08-2018 08:03

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