Pandemic threatens to thwart China's anti-poverty drive

Poor migrants' jobs, incomes of village co-ops and rural industries hit, says official

The Covid-19 pandemic has hit China's plans to eradicate poverty this year - affecting employment of poor migrant workers, and the incomes of poor village co-operatives and rural industries, a senior Chinese official has said.

Mr Liu Yongfu, who heads a poverty alleviation office under the State Council, China's Cabinet, said at a press briefing yesterday that the coronavirus has sparked a rise in the number of people at risk of falling into poverty.

The government has identified 380,000 people who fall into this group this year, said Mr Liu, who noted that the global nature of the outbreak is exerting downward pressure on the economy and decreasing manufacturing orders.

"This has caused some employment to be affected and the unemployment rate has increased. This is a fact, it's true globally and China is no exception," he said.

His comments underscore the challenges Beijing will face in eliminating poverty this year.

Experts say poverty alleviation will likely be high on the agenda at the annual lianghui, or legislative meetings, that begin on Thursday in the Chinese capital.

Mr Liu told reporters that the difficulties as a result of Covid-19 could be overcome, and that the central government will employ a range of measures, including providing public welfare jobs and purchasing goods produced by poor farmers, to cushion the impact.

Despite Covid-19 battering the Chinese economy, Beijing is set on meeting its target to eradicate poverty in the country by the end of this year, a pledge President Xi Jinping made in 2015.

It is a key part of China's first centennial goal of establishing a "moderately prosperous society" by next year - the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party's founding.

In March, Mr Xi doubled down on the promise even as China was grappling with the coronavirus crisis, saying in a speech to party and government officials that this was a "solemn commitment" to the people, and that "retreat or flexibility" was not an option.

China's achievement in this area "shows the political advantages of the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and our social system", he said then.

INCORRECT ASSUMPTION

Many poor (people) go in and out of poverty. Even the poverty statistics wrongly assume this - for instance, saying that 'there are X million people left in poverty'. It assumes incorrectly that they are the same people month to month.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR JOHN DONALDSON, from Singapore Management University, who has researched poverty in China extensively. He noted that poverty is never fully defeated; it is an acute condition where households move in and out of poverty, depending on factors such as changing weather patterns, births and deaths.

Since China began reforms and opened up to the world in 1978, it has lifted about 850 million people out of poverty.

Official statistics show there are about 5.51 million people who still live below the poverty line, defined nationally as an annual income of around 3,000 yuan (S$600).

Experts say Mr Xi has hitched his political legitimacy, and that of the Chinese Communist Party, to lifting impoverished Chinese out of poverty.

The Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy's Associate Professor Alfred Wu said the anti-poverty campaign, together with fighting corruption, are two top priorities for Mr Xi during his tenure.

"These are very close concerns of the Chinese people, and it shows them that he is addressing their concerns," he said.

For President Xi, projecting that Beijing would still be able to meet goals he had set out before the pandemic also hammers home the point that "his leadership enabled China to defeat the virus", according to Professor Steve Tsang from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

Still, completely eradicating poverty will be an uphill challenge.

Singapore Management University's Associate Professor John Donaldson, who has researched poverty in China extensively, said the anti-poverty campaign makes some incorrect assumptions.

For one thing, it assumes that poverty is a chronic problem, instead of an acute condition where households move in and out of poverty, depending on factors such as changing weather patterns, births and deaths.

The nature of the problem is that poverty is never fully defeated, Prof Donaldson said.

"Many poor (people) go in and out of poverty. Even the poverty statistics wrongly assume this - for instance, saying that 'there are X million people left in poverty'.

"It assumes incorrectly that they are the same people month to month," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 19, 2020, with the headline 'Pandemic threatens to thwart China's anti-poverty drive'. Subscribe