China’s poorest counties are no longer officially in extreme poverty. What does this mean?

Domestic News

Virtually all residents in rural China now have incomes above the government’s absolute poverty standard. This does not mean poverty has been eradicated, but it does mean “improved livelihoods for almost 100 million people over the last eight years.”

Aerial view of a massive poverty alleviation relocation site, the Muendi Community in Zhaojue county, Liangshan Li autonomous prefecture, Sichuan Province, 29 August 2020. Oriental Image/REUTERS

In 2012, as Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 came to power as the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, he set poverty alleviation as one of his key policy focuses. Beijing later identified 832 counties (link in Chinese) across China as among the most poverty-stricken, and later in 2015, Xi pledged to eradicate extreme poverty in the country by 2020.

All 832 counties are now out of extreme poverty, according to official surveys.

  • On November 23, a local official in one of China’s poorest provinces, Guizhou, announced (in Chinese) that the annual per-capita income of the residents in the region’s final nine poverty-stricken counties had surged to 11,487 yuan ($1,742), and that virtually all residents had been lifted above a government-defined absolute poverty standard of 4,000 yuan ($607).
  • Guizhou’s income survey results came on the heels of similar announcements from Gansu, Sichuan, Ningxia, and Yunnan, meaning that as of this week, no counties in China are officially “classed as poor according to government criteria,” Caixin reports (paywall).
  • However: “Removal from the list does not mean that the counties are poverty-free,” Caixin says. “Because the policies are based on raising average incomes, the results often smooth over the circumstances of individual families or communities that continue to live in penury.”

More caveats

As discussed on a Sinica Podcast episode featuring Gāo Qín 高琴, a leading authority on China’s social welfare system, and Matthew Chitwood, a writer who recently spent two years in rural Yunnan studying China’s poverty alleviation policies on the ground:

  • China’s threshold for poverty is set very low, which means that millions of people recently “lifted out of” poverty still feel poor. (As the Wall Street Journal points out, a World Bank poverty standard of around $2,000 a year would mean that “373 million or about 27%” of China would still be considered poor.)
  • Urban poverty is treated separately from rural poverty, and Xi Jinping’s campaign has been focused on the countryside.
  • But poverty alleviation is real, and the Communist Party and Xi in particular are directly credited by citizens in rural China for materially improving their lives.

Chitwood recently wrote in Foreign Affairs:

…the reality of China’s antipoverty campaign is more complicated [than the Chinese government narrative]. The program is neither a figment of government propaganda nor an unalloyed success. Two things became clear to me after two years spent living side by side with the campaign’s rural beneficiaries: China will indeed have eradicated poverty by its own metrics by the end of this year, and it still has a long way to go to address the growing urban-rural divide.

Is the wealth gap growing still wider? China may be reviving its economy, after the first wave of COVID, at a remarkably fast rate, but that also likely comes with even greater inequality: As SupChina reported yesterday, China’s wealthiest 400 people got 64% richer this year, largely due to a wave of company IPOs.

The bottom line: “We should not forget the big picture that this represents improved livelihoods for almost 100 million people over the last eight years,” Chitwood added in comments to SupChina.

Just in time for the CCP’s 100th anniversary

The reason for setting 2020 as the goal to bring all of rural China above an absolute poverty standard is not a secret: The 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China is in 2021.

Per the Global Times, “China will comprehensively review the poverty alleviation work to make sure it is a solid success and announce the results in the first half of 2021.”

  • Why the review? Chitwood tells SupChina: “This has been a huge propaganda and financial effort. They want to get it right and not have some promotion-seeking officials who fudged numbers turn the CCP’s grand feat into a false victory.”

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