40th anniversary of China’s reform and opening up

After 40 years, China aims to close chapter on poverty

A one megawatt photovoltaic-and-greenhouse project in Qonggyai county of Shannan prefecture-level city is an investment by the local government that will pay out 3,000 yuan a year to each of 120 villagers. ST PHOTO: LIM YAN LIANG
Mr Ciwang Nazha, a second-year student at the Lhasa No.2 Secondary Vocational and Technical School in Lhasa City, practises Thangka (Tibetan Buddhist) painting alongside other students. ST PHOTO: LIM YAN LIANG
Farmers Lamo Yozhong (left), 33, and Tanzing Laju, 49, in a greenhouse they work at in Qonggyai county of the Shannan prefecture-level city. ST PHOTO: LIM YAN LIANG

TIBET - With a bag of fertiliser slung across his back and a shovel in hand, 41-year-old Pubu Langjie tended to the endless rows of liquorice and fruit tree saplings that have only recently been planted across the arid soil of Dranang county.

The planting and weeding is tiring work under the scorching Tibetan sun, but Mr Pubu, formerly an itinerant worker, is glad for the job, which was offered to him after he relocated from his remote mountaintop home 30km away.

"It pays 4,000 yuan (S$790) a month, about the same as my previous odd jobs, but the work is easier and much more stable," he said.

"I no longer worry when I'll see my next paycheck."

Improving the fortunes of those like Mr Pubu is why China has pushed for drastic solutions like relocation in its war against poverty, which Beijing has intensified after President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012.

This year alone, China will relocate 2.8 million poor people, particularly those living in inhospitable places, as part of a larger urbanisation push to move 100 million villagers to its cities by 2020.

Nearly four decades after China began tackling the deep-set problem of destitution, Mr Xi vowed in 2015 to completely eliminate extreme poverty in China by 2020.

Students at the Lhasa No.2 Secondary Vocational and Technical School in Lhasa City learn basic vocational skills, such as assembly-line work here at a mock toy factory. Their courses are fully subsidised by the local government. ST PHOTO: LIM YAN LIANG

Even before that goal is reached, China has played an outsized role in the global reduction of poverty.

In 1978, more than 90 per cent of China's population of one billion - the bulk of which lived in rural areas - was considered indigent, living under the extreme poverty line set by the World Bank that today is US$1.90 (S$2.60) a day.

Then-paramount leader Deng Xiaoping unleashed reforms that year that ranged from ending rural farming communes to designating special economic zones in coastal cities that saw a flood of foreign investment.

These measures ushered in an era of roaring growth that saw per capita income soar 16-fold in the next three decades, noted World Bank country director for China Bert Horfman.

The result was over 700 million people escaping poverty - nearly half of global poverty reduction in that period.

But the concentration of economic liberalisation and heavy investment in the eastern and coastal cities in recent decades - even as agricultural land reform slowed - meant that the rural poor have stayed a stubbornly difficult problem for Beijing.

As of this year, there are still 30 million poor living in the world's second largest economy.

Mr Xi, who has tied his job performance and that of local officials to ensuring no Chinese remains under the poverty line after the 2020 deadline, has spared no expense even as he admitted that the last mile is the hardest.

The central government budgeted over 106 billion yuan in its special fund for poverty alleviation this year, a dramatic seven-fold increase in just one decade.

As the campaign heated up, official language changed from "poverty reduction" to "a war on the fortified position of poverty".

And in a message to party cadres on International Day for the Eradication of Poverty in October, Mr Xi used a Chinese idiom that said 90-li is only half of a 100-li journey - that the going gets tougher near the end.

"As long as the whole party and all the Chinese people are united in their efforts and determined to work hard, they will surely win the hard battle against poverty as scheduled," he said.

But why is defeating poverty of such importance to Mr Xi and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)?

Experts said there is a clear political and existential imperative for the CCP to finally erase poverty within its borders, having in an earlier era promised a society centred on egalitarianism and prosperity for its peasants.

And so the CCP has made lifting up China's remaining poor part of the its centennial goal of becoming a moderately affluent society before 2021 - the 100th anniversary of the CCP's founding.

To be sure, the vast mobilisation of money and people in recent years has paid off: since 2012, about 13 million people a year have been brought above the poverty line, double that of the decade before, said Mr Liu Yongfu, director of the State Council Leading Group Office of Poverty Alleviation and Development.

China will spare no effort to help the remaining 30 million poor become self-sufficient by the end of the decade, Mr Xi said.

One reason for the successes is that Beijing has better localised its policies and learnt from past mistakes, such as the wholesale relocation of villages without putting in place sufficient support networks, community services and jobs.

Programmes to help farmers get loans and the expertise to tap local conditions and specialties have been expanded to maximise returns from agriculture, such as rare black bee honey in frigid Heilongjiang, kiwis in Sichuan, or mulberry to make artisanal paper in Guizhou.

With China's greater focus on high-quality growth and environment protection, more firms are also tapping on local unskilled labour in ecologically vulnerable places that often also have entrenched poverty problems, said Mr Liu. These include combatting sand dunes and desertification by planting crops like desert squash and sea buckthorn in Inner Mongolia and alfalfa in Guizhou.

Where the land is not inhospitable, Beijing has encouraged rural communities to remain by spending big to renovate and upgrade homes and basic infrastructure in its villages and counties, ensuring that even those living in remote places have access to water, electricity, roads, mobile networks and the Internet and services such as medical care and education.

In Tibet, for instance, the poverty alleviation slogan now reads: "Convenient employment nearby, without leaving your village and your home soil".

And such is the case in villages such as Naduo in the Wenshan Zhuang and Miao autonomous region of Yunnan, one of the poorest provinces. In the span of months in 2016, the 70 mud shacks with erratic power and water there and in other nearby villages were transformed - free of charge - into a neat collection of charcoal-bricked homes. Dirt roads were cemented over, and solar street lamps were installed.

Even as the world applauds China's focus on lifting up its poor, many gaps remain in Chinese society, such as the urban-rural divide. Those living in cities make, on average, three times the income of those in rural areas.

And despite beefing up social security in recent years, China's Gini coefficient - a measure of income inequality - has climbed rapidly in the last two decades to between 47.3 and 50 points, among the highest in the world.

Ms Hannah Ryder, who heads an international development consultancy in Beijing, noted that with China's push to have one billion people living in urban areas by 2030, the gap with those "left behind" in the countryside - who are mostly the elderly and children - is likely to grow starker.

Further hukou (residence permit) reform to prevent discrimination of farmers migrating to the cities, coupled with financial incentives to return to rural areas and better redistribution of wealth and resources to the rural areas will be needed, she told CGTN, a Chinese news channel.

Experts have also stressed that eliminating extreme poverty, while laudable, is just a first step: Mr Horfman estimated that some 54 million Chinese will still be classified as "population vulnerable to poverty", living on US$3.10 a day or less.

"As China drives forward forcefully in its campaign to eliminate extreme rural poverty by 2020, the conditions in the remaining poor areas are particularly difficult, and the obstacles to success particularly large," said United Nations resident coordinator for China Nicholas Rosellini.

"Simply pouring more and more resources into this effort is not always the best approach to such challenges."

But Mr Lu Mai, who is secretary-general of the China Development Research Foundation, a public organisation, said China is already looking beyond its 2020 goal and drawing up plans to ensure that those who have escaped poverty will not fall back in. Some local governments, for instance, are already looking at a higher poverty line of 4,500 yuan in annual per capita income compared to the current 3,000 yuan.

"China is carrying out poverty alleviation work in an evidence-based manner, learning from methods abroad while formulating policies based on closely monitored results, so I'm confident we will succeed in erasing poverty for the long-term," he said.

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