China’s poverty alleviation mission is a historic achievement

A farmer dries Dendrobium nobile Lindl in Chishui, southwest China's Guizhou province, May 12. The city has cultivated 6,000 hectares of the plant to boost the industry and the income of local residents as the plant boasts a high value in both medical use and sightseeing. Photo by Zhang Peng/People's Daily Online

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected China’s long-standing goal of eradicating all extreme poverty by the end of 2020?

It was no surprise that the whole-of-country commitment to contain the pandemic, which had remarkable success, disrupted the economy and diverted attention from everything else, including from poverty alleviation. Transportation was interrupted. Some farmers could not return to their lands for the planting season. Rural migrant workers could not return to their jobs. The development of rural industry, such as breeding and processing, was retarded. Sales of agricultural products were depressed.

In addition, healthcare issues and economic distress made some new people become poor and some formerly poor people fell back into poverty. Moreover, local officials were understandably distracted from fighting poverty to fighting COVID-19 — and still they worry about sporadic outbreaks or second waves.

Though obstacles are being surmounted, with the time lost and the economy hurt, the Chinese government would have ample reason to postpone the poverty-eradication target date beyond 2020. Everyone would understand a delay. No one would cast blame.

But, on March 6, at a large-scale virtual symposium on poverty alleviation, Chinese President Xi Jinping gave a clarion call that the goal to lift all rural residents living below the current poverty line out of poverty by 2020 must be realized as scheduled. He called the goal a “solemn pledge” made by the Party to the people.

To appreciate President Xi’s driving motivation, one must understand the context of this special year, 2020, the long-set target date for ushering in the “moderately prosperous society” — which is the first of the two great centenary goals that compose what President calls “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”.

The original formulation of the “moderately prosperous society” defined it in quantitatively precise terms: doubling of the 2010 GDP per capita by 2020. President Xi enhanced this definition by asserting that China could not claim to be a “moderately prosperous society”, no matter how high its GDP per capita, if even one Chinese citizen remained in absolute or extreme poverty. It was a powerful prescription that rang true and set national policy.

Therefore, the “moderately prosperous society” cannot be achieved in 2020 unless all extreme poverty is eradicated by the end of the year. This is what has intensified the final push, made more challenging, of course, by the pandemic.

In Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s Work Report of the Government, presented in the opening session of the delayed National People’s Congress, he prioritized stabilizing employment and ensuring living standards, and winning the battle against poverty by eradicating poverty among all rural residents and in all poor counties.

Specific measures include: boosting consumption of products from poor areas; supporting businesses involved in poverty alleviation; ensuring rural migrant workers from poor areas have stable jobs; chartering trains to take migrant workers back to their urban jobs; providing follow-up support to people relocated from inhospitable areas; and deepening collaboration on poverty alleviation between eastern and western regions.

Looking to the future, the government called for monitoring and assisting people who fall back into poverty and for promoting rural vitalization to help people who have risen out of poverty move toward prosperity. A poverty reduction survey will be conducted nationwide to quantify results and identify issues, especially in guarding against fraud.

I consider the pandemic as a kind of “stress test” of the poverty alleviation system. Difficulties sharpen distinctions between what works and what does not, whom you can depend on and whom you cannot.

A concern: When officials are pressured to meet their firm objectives in a compressed period of time, some may cut corners or fudge numbers. I applaud the State Council’s Poverty Alleviation Office for its independent checking and inspecting, avowing that if there is any false reports or fraud, officials will be held accountable and dealt with seriously, so that the results of poverty alleviation can stand the test of history and the people. The greater the transparency of government, the greater the confidence in government.

At this sensitive time in international communications, I find that China’s poverty alleviation campaign is the single most powerful story to undermine foreign stereotypes and biases about China. When I tell the story of China’s poverty alleviation — offering my first hand accounts, having myself travelled in the poorest areas of the country and witnessed the process in action — up close and personal — many foreigners are surprised to learn that China as a country, and President Xi as its leader, have made poverty alleviation of highest national importance.

What I stress at this time, when the world is so focused on the coronavirus — and recognizes how China has contained the pandemic through rigorous and lockdowns and strict procedures — is that the Party-led system that was successful in containing the coronavirus is the same Party-led system that is eradicating extreme poverty.

So, what can the world learn from China’ success in poverty alleviation? First, each country is different. Each culture has a different history, culture, nature of its people. We cannot take programs from one country and impose them on another country.

However, the principles are what’s important. And China’s principles of poverty alleviation are clear. Number one is the absolute commitment of the leadership of the country. President Xi has said, “I have spent more energy on poverty alleviation than on anything else.” This sends a powerful message to officials at all levels, indeed to the entire country.

So, this is the first lesson to learn:  the senior leader of the country needs to make the overall mission of poverty alleviation a priority.

We think of poverty programs in terms of measures, mechanisms and procedures. And indeed, China has pioneered micro businesses, education, relocating whole villages, eco-compensation, and social security. These can be adapted to other countries, as can the Party-led organizational system of implementing poverty alleviation through “five levels” of local government (provincial, municipal, county, township, village).

But what’s critically important for all countries to recognize in the fight against poverty is the critical importance of motivating officials to make poverty alleviation a priority. This can come only from the top down. This is the big lesson that China shows the world.

China’s poverty alleviation mission, lifting some 900 million people out of poverty, is a historic achievement, to be remembered for the ages.

(Robert Lawrence Kuhn is a recipient of the China Reform Friendship Medal)


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