How China’s poverty alleviation program works, explained by Gao Qin


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There is no question that China has seen a miracle of poverty reduction. According to the World Bank, since the economic reforms that started in 1978, economic growth in China has “lifted more than 800 million people out of poverty.” Chinese state media regularly reminds us that the country has about 50 million people left in poverty, particularly in rural areas, but not to worry: President Xi Jinping will completely eliminate poverty by 2020!

About all this, there are many questions:

  • Really? Complete elimination of poverty by 2020? How does the government define poverty, are those numbers reliable or do they understate the problem, and what would the government consider “total elimination of poverty”?
  • How much of the poverty reduction so far was the direct result of government policy?
  • How does China’s primary social insurance program, dibao (低保 dībǎo), actually work? How effective is it at reducing poverty? What is the difference between dibao and other targeted poverty alleviation programs?
  • What is the relation between poverty alleviation and urbanization in China?

To answer all these questions and more, Jeremy and Kaiser sat down with Gao Qin, professor of social policy and social work, and director of the China Center for Social Policy at Columbia University. She is the author of an excellent book on the subject of social assistance in China published just last year called Welfare, Work, and Poverty: Social Assistance in China, which looks at dibao and the tens of millions of people that it covers.


Jeremy: The blog of Stephen Jones, an ethnographer who’s been traveling around China since the 1980s, documenting folk religion, theater, and other random things, particularly in rural life. Also see his Twitter feed @Stevejonesblog.

Qin: Life and Death in Shanghai, the autobiography of Cheng Nien, an extraordinary woman whose life was dramatically impacted like so many others during the Cultural Revolution.

Kaiser: Grant, the biography of famed U.S. general and president Ulysses S. Grant, written by Ron Chernow.