COVID-19 SPECIAL: News analysis

Wiping out poverty by year-end remains China's goal despite coronavirus, economic woes

More than 460,000 Chinese enterprises declared bankruptcy in the first quarter of this year.

And though official figures pin unemployment at 5.9 per cent in March, China's real jobless rate stands at an alarming 20 per cent, or 70 million jobless, according to Zhongtai Securities, a brokerage firm in Shandong province that has since retracted its report, ostensibly due to government pressure to prevent panic.

Even more alarmingly, the Chinese economy shrank 6.8 per cent in the January to March period from the previous year, the first contraction since quarterly records began in 1992.

Yet despite all the economic devastation wrought by Covid-19, Premier Li Keqiang yesterday pledged that the world's most populous nation is still determined to wipe out rural poverty by the end of this year.

"Eliminating poverty is an obligatory task we must complete in order to build a moderately prosperous society," he said at the opening of the annual full session of Parliament, which is usually held in March but was delayed this year because of the virus outbreak.

It will be an uphill battle. Eradicating rural poverty would be an unprecedented feat in more than 3,000 years of Chinese history. But poverty, joblessness and bankruptcies are all threats to social stability - an obsession of the Communist Party.

In his annual work report to the National People's Congress, Mr Li said the rural poor population was reduced by 11.09 million last year.

China has lifted 800 million out of poverty in the past four decades, according to the World Bank, a move unmatched by any other country in history.

The building of a "moderately prosperous society" is ambiguous and not quantifiable.

China's chief state statistician put the country's middle class at 400 million strong, or one-third of the population. Once an egalitarian though impoverished backwater, China is now the world's second-biggest economy after more than four decades of reform.

Premier Li also promised more government spending to buoy the economy, but he did not set a growth target for this year because "the global epidemic situation and economic and trade situation are very uncertain".

"China's development is facing some unpredictable factors," he said, apparently referring to a trade and technology dispute with the United States as well as an escalating war of words with US President Donald Trump over the origin of the coronavirus that threatens to decouple the world's two biggest economies.

A source with ties to the leadership was confident China would still be able to post positive growth this year, ranging from 3 per cent to 5 per cent.

In his speech, Mr Li unveiled "forceful, sustainable... adjustable" policies to help enterprises weather "the fastest spreading, most extensive and most challenging public health emergency" since the 1949 revolution. To reduce the burden on enterprises, he vowed to further cut taxes and fees of about 500 billion yuan (S$100 billion), slash, waive or defer rents for state-owned premises, and decrease electricity prices and the cost of broadband and dedicated Internet. These measures will see additional savings of more than 2.5 trillion yuan for enterprises throughout the year, he said.

"We must do our utmost to help enterprises, particularly micro, small and medium-sized businesses, and self-employed individuals get through this challenging time."

The Premier ordered large commercial banks to increase lending to micro and small businesses by more than 40 per cent to ensure private firms can secure loans more easily.

Interest rates will be steadily reduced and principal and interest repayments will be deferred until the end of March next year.

But this is easier said than done. Most Chinese banks are risk-averse and prefer to lend to state-owned enterprises but not private firms.

Increased government spending on infrastructure projects and lower revenues from tax collection mean a bigger fiscal deficit. China is targeting a 2020 budget deficit of at least 3.6 per cent of gross domestic product, above last year's 2.8 per cent, and has fixed the quota on local government special bond issuance at 3.75 trillion yuan, up from 2.15 trillion yuan, according to the Premier.

To prevent the jobless from taking to the streets, China aims to create more than nine million new urban jobs this year and set a target urban unemployment rate of around 6 per cent, compared with 5.5 per cent last year.

China has built a "Great Wall of solidarity against the epidemic" and "achieved a decisive victory" for now, Mr Li said, adding that it "will not let up on any front of our long-term fight" against the contagion to prevent a second wave of infections.

Military spending may have slowed from double-digit growth in previous years, but China's goal of reunification with self-ruled Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its own, has never changed - either through peaceful or military means.

Mr Li ignored Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen's call for dialogue after she rejected Beijing's peaceful reunification overtures in her inaugural speech on Wednesday.

The Premier declared that China will "resolutely oppose and deter any separatist activities seeking Taiwan independence".

He added that China will push for reunification, but dropped the crucial word "peaceful".

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 23, 2020, with the headline Wiping out poverty by year-end remains China's goal despite coronavirus, economic woes. Subscribe