China’s list of poorest counties shrinks for the first time in 30 years
Officials highlight first statistical success stories in anti-poverty campaign that forms key part of Xi Jinping’s agenda
China has removed 28 counties off its list of the poorest places in the country – the first time in over 30 years that the list of areas suffering extreme poverty has been reduced – under a drive by Xi Jinping to eradicate the problem.
Xia Gengsheng, of the State Council Leading Group Office on Poverty Alleviation and Development, said on Wednesday that 26 counties in nine provinces would soon be removed from the extreme poverty list following the removal of Jinggangshan in Jiangxi and Lankao in Henan in February.
Eliminating poverty is a key aspect of Xi’s ambition of making China a “modern socialist country” by 2050.
However, even if the country meets Xi’s target of eradicating extreme poverty by 2020, officials acknowledge that further measures will still be needed to help the large numbers still living in relative poverty.
An initial list of counties suffering extreme poverty in 1986 identified 331 areas.
Despite years of sustained economic growth, this list grew steadily over the years – due to a series of statistical refinements and a greater official focus on tackling the problem – reaching 832 before the latest readjustment.
According to Yang Lian, the deputy director of the poverty alleviation group’s evaluation division, measures such as developing industry, boosting employment and moving residents away from environmentally challenging areas had helped to lift the population out of poverty in the counties affected.
Financial aid has also been provided to ensure the elderly, chronically ill and disabled enjoy a basic standard of living, she said.
However, Chinese officials have acknowledged a long and winding road awaits them in combating poverty as it will take a greater effort to lift the remaining 800 or so counties out of poverty.
“The remaining counties trapped in poverty are more extreme cases that require more effort as they lack basic infrastructure and social-economic development foundations, Xia told a press conference on Wednesday. “The further we go, the harder it will get.”
Poverty in China is defined having an annual income below 3,000 yuan (US$450) at current prices.
A county can be removed from the extreme poverty list if less than 2 per cent of its population is living below the poverty line. In western regions that figure rises to 3 per cent.
Stringent criteria are in place to make sure counties seeking to be lifted out of the poor category meet the requirements.
This year “another 100 or so counties filed withdrawal applications”, Xia said.
To prevent counties from sinking back on to the poverty list, Yang said the central government would continue to pay subsidies until 2020.
Li Guoxiang, a rural development researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said large sections of China’s population would remain relatively poor even if it met the target of eradicating extreme poverty by 2021.
“It seems to be a game of figures,” Li said, adding that there were“more realistic” metrics to measure “whether people have really been withdrawn from poverty”.
The researcher defined this as people not having to worry about paying for the basics such as clothing, food, education, medical care and housing.
Chinese officials have said previously that many poor counties are reluctant to have the poverty designation removed because it guarantees subsidies and other help from the central government.
Han Jun, director of the Office of the Central Rural Work Leading Group, wrote in a recent publication:
“Between 2013 and 2017, the central government has pumped in 278 billion yuan and provincial governments 182.5 billion to alleviate poverty”.
As of the end of last year, more than 43 million people in China were still living below the poverty line, according to Han.
International bodies agree that China’s anti-poverty drive is bearing fruit. According to World Bank figures the percentage of people living below the international poverty line – which it defines as living on less that US$1.90 a day according to 2011 prices – has fallen from 6.5 per cent in 2012 to 1.9 per cent the following year. In 1990 66.6 per cent of the population fell below this line.
Han said the central government would focus on channelling resources to the worst affected areas, including Tibet, Tibetan autonomous counties in neighbouring provinces, the Liangshan prefecture in Sichuan; southern Xinjiang, Nujiang prefecture in Yunnan and Linxia prefecture in Gansu.