By Jia Yu
This year, the People’s Republic of China commemorates the 70th anniversary of its founding. In a joint celebration of military prowess and social advancements, the Chinese government is embracing the promise for a stable and prosperous nation. Yet, despite being the world’s second largest economy, China is currently home to around 16 million people living in extreme poverty. Four years ago, this dichotomy prompted President Xi Jinping to call for the complete eradication of poverty by 2020. Since then, officials from all echelons of the government have responded eagerly, under pressure of the impending deadline and severe penalties for unfulfilled objectives. Indeed, the government’s grandiose vision is encouraging. Yet, it is crucial to evaluate the substantial progress thus far to determine the feasibility of this anti-poverty campaign.
Since the Chinese economic reforms of 1978, many cities have experienced rapid industrialization from foreign investments and enjoyed increases in productivity. However, the resulting exponential growth drew disproportionate benefits to the urbanized coastal cities, while eluding many inland, remote regions, thus creating a significant wealth gap between the urban and rural populations. As a result, many young people abandoned their villages in order to seek job opportunities in large cities such as Shenzhen and Shanghai. This unsustainable exodus, however, lead to the overburdening of urban resources and infrastructure and prompted an urgent effort to address poverty in rural pockets of the country. By pinpointing areas with a high concentration of impoverished households, the government seeks to bolster their local economy and create viable job opportunities in the long run.
Before the initiation of the anti-poverty campaign in 2015, official Chinese statistics asserted that around 70 million people lived below the poverty line, nationally established at 2,300 yuan (376 USD). The diverse challenges present in this large population effectively eliminates the potential for any universal solution. Nevertheless, there are certain similarities that can be systematically addressed. For example, in the mountainous terrains of Yunnan, a southern province and a key focus of the campaign, the lack of dependable infrastructure impedes villagers’ access to basic conveniences including running water. In response, the government has widely implemented the relocation of these rural communities into neighborhoods of newly constructed apartments. Although this decision has received broad affirmation from the young people, the elderly generation is more concerned about the loss of their ethnic customs and rustic lifestyle. Thus, the efficiency gained from the regrouping of rural communities should be balanced by equal consideration for preserving traditional social structures.
Whereas the relocation campaign may endanger traditional ways of living, other anti-poverty methods are seeking to highlight the rural characteristics as a marketing strategy. The popularity of online grocery shopping in China has made it possible for farmers to sell their homegrown produce through digital platforms such as Taobao. This trending model not only generates an increase in income for the farmers, but further challenge the stereotypical “backwardness” in the rural areas. In fact, capitalizing on the increasingly positive perceptions of the rural lifestyle, many villages have appealed to the domestic tourism market as a way to boost the local economy.
Eradicating poverty has long been a challenge for the Chinese government. As recently as 3 decades ago, around 750 million people or 60% of the country’s population still resided below the poverty line. In comparison to the current impoverished population of only 16 million, there is no doubt that substantial progress has been made. In anticipating the realization of an overall “moderately prosperous” society by 2020, the Chinese people must demonstrate guarded optimism. Under the strict government mandate, where “failure is not tolerated,” official may fabricate progress in their jurisdictions, whether in an attempt to avoid punishments or even to embezzle funds. Therefore, all efforts towards President Xi Jinping’s zero-poverty goal in 2020, must be genuine and over the long term, contribute meaningful and sustainable effects in raising Chinese standards of living.