China's Xi Jinping declares 'complete victory' in campaign to stamp out rural poverty

Farmer Liu Qingyou at his residence in Baojing county, Hunan province, last month. "The economic gap between rural and urban Chinese is still very substantial," says an expert.
Farmer Liu Qingyou at his residence in Baojing county, Hunan province, last month. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING  - Chinese President Xi Jinping declared “complete victory” over absolute poverty in a grand event held at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Thursday (Feb 25), a move that experts say will bolster support for the top Chinese leader in a critical year for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The Chinese leader hailed the latest achievement as the “great glory” of the CCP, and the Chinese nation and people, pointing out that it comes in a year when the party is due to celebrate its centenary.

“We have made a great historical achievement in eliminating this problem of absolute poverty that has plagued the Chinese nation for thousands of years. (We have) created a miracle in mankind’s history of reducing poverty,” he declared.

Close to 100 million Chinese living in rural areas have been lifted out of absolute poverty since Mr Xi came to power in late 2012.

The quest to eliminate poverty is one of Mr Xi’s signature policies, and a key part of the CCP’s goal of creating a “moderately prosperous” society by its 100th anniversary this year.

Mr Xi was front and centre of the ceremony on Thursday, personally handing out awards to key party officials for contributions to the anti-poverty effort, and delivering an hour-long speech.

He lauded that party’s role in the effort, saying that the “CCP’s leadership and China’s socialist system are the fundamental guarantees against risks, challenges and difficulties.”

In his speech, Mr Xi said China had invested 1.6 trillion yuan (S$327 billion) in fighting poverty over the last eight years, and he also acknowledged the need to revitalise rural areas and narrow the developmental gap between urban and rural areas.

China’s definition of absolute poverty is an annual per capital income of less than 4,000 yuan, which some observers have noted is lower than the World Bank’s international standard of US$1.90 (S$2.50) a day.

Mr Xi’s formal announcement of China’s triumph over absolute poverty comes just months before the CCP’s centenary in July, and its 20th party congress next year, when observers expect Mr Xi to seek a third term in power.

This achievement will help consolidate his support, said Professor Willy Lam of the Centre for China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Prof Lam pointed out that Mr Xi had mooted the idea of the “Chinese Dream” soon after he came to power, when the country has become moderately properous and achieved national rejuvenation – and eliminating absolute poverty is a key part of this goal.

“This will be one of his major achievements domestically,” said Prof Lam.

The party’s official newspaper People’s Daily also cemented Mr Xi’s role in the anti-poverty campaign on Wednesday, running a three-page, 22,000-character article summarising the poverty-alleviation orders he had given since he came to power.

While Mr Xi has added a feather to his cap with the latest announcement, experts say relative poverty is still widespread and Beijing would have to ramp up efforts to address inequality between urban and rural areas going forward.

The central government has released policy directives on revitalising rural areas this week, and has also recently set up a new body called the National Administration of Rural Revitalisation to spearhead this effort.

And the issue is expected to be a key part of discussions during next week’s lianghui, or the annual legislative meetings in Beijing, said Associate Professor Alfred Wu of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

“The more long-term issue that China needs to address is how its rural people can move up the economic ladder. The economic gap between rural and urban Chinese is still very substantial,” he said.