China seeks hardest victory over poverty
Millions of people may have been lifted out squalor but the economic miracle has only widened the remaining wealth gap, so alleviating rural destitution will prove a tough test for Xi Jinping
A world in awe of China’s rise for having lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty may assume the country has also eradicated poverty. But this remains a core element of the goal of the 13th five-year plan to establish a moderately prosperous society by 2020. In a recent speech in which he spelt out his poverty strategy, President Xi Jinping left little doubt he sees this as part of his political legacy. Far from eradicating poverty, decades of reform have actually widened the wealth gap between the rural poor and the rest. As a result, the rump of rural destitution is one of the biggest challenges facing the Communist Party.
When Xi launched a poverty alleviation drive in 2015, official statistics still put more than 70 million rural residents below the poverty line, defined as an annual income of 2,300 yuan (HK$2,764). Most remain there. Raising them above it in three years is likely to be the hardest task of poverty alleviation. They tend to be stranded in remote rural areas and confronted with difficulties they cannot overcome without extra help. As our recent two-part Focus series reminded us, they are not that remote from Hong Kong. Pockets of them are to be found in the rural hinterland of booming Guangdong.
This calls for extraordinary measures that go beyond increased infrastructure investment in impoverished areas, and do not depend entirely on local officials, who have often been criticised in the past for waste and misuse of poverty alleviation funds. Xi attempted to address them with a call for the party to “send our best talents to the front line of the tough battle with extreme poverty”, and for county leaders who performed well in poverty alleviation to be promoted. This arguably serves the interests of the nation, in that the Chinese dream cannot be achieved amid poverty, and also the political legitimacy of the party, in that sending the best people to the front line helps ensure that the elite do not lose touch with the grass roots.
Xi prioritised practical measures to improve the lives of people stranded in rural poverty, such as solving the problems of social services, infrastructure and a shortage of basic medical services in areas of deep-rooted poverty. A basket of measures to eradicate extreme poverty includes evacuating residents from areas with very poor living conditions, increasing funding and prioritising land distribution to meet development needs, and improving services such as education, vocational training and transport to add jobs and develop industries. It will rank among its highest achievements if China can devise an efficient approach to alleviating structural poverty in areas bypassed by the economic miracle and persuade the private sector of the potential of participation in development.