Workers Sent Back To Countryside In Poverty Alleviation Drive

China has declared it will eliminate absolute poverty—defined as making under 4,000 yuan ($600) annually—by the end of this year. Towards that goal, China is enacting a new policy with a familiar ring: sending workers down to the countryside. At The Wall Street Journal, James T. Areddy examined Xi Jinping’s drive to bring migrant workers back “home”:

China’s rural poor have been a tool of Communist Party strategy since Mao Zedong rallied them in his revolution, then herded them into communal farming, with disastrous results. Decades later, Deng Xiaoping sent them to urban construction sites and factories. Mr. Xi is pressing them into service for a third time. To narrow the gulf between China’s urban rich and rural poor, he is trying to populate rural towns with entrepreneurs and consumers.

[…] China’s biggest cities have begun to set caps on their populations, depicting nonlocals as a threat to stability. Police single out suspected nonlocals for ID checks in subways and regularly cite licensing violations to close migrant schools and businesses. Both Shanghai and Guangzhou saw net outflows of migrants in 2018.

[…] At age 16, [Zhang Tao] followed his parents to Suzhou to try to make it, first as an apprentice factory worker and then as a barber. A barbershop he set up with a friend failed. Last year, he set up another barbershop near his hometown, becoming one of 850,000 people the province has said it hopes to attract back over five years. “I knew sooner or later I had to go home,” he said.

Mr. Zhang is worried he made the wrong decision. All his friends are in Suzhou. He feels as though competitors are springing up faster than customers. “It isn’t easy to make money at home,” he said. [Source]

According to China’s official sources, over 50 million rural poor “shook off poverty” between 2016 and 2019. This past week, officials claimed that there are no remaining impoverished counties in Yunnan, Sichuan, nor Xinjiang, traditionally poorer areas in China’s recent past. Global Times, a Chinese state-owned tabloid, predicted that the three remaining regions that have yet to declare victory over poverty, Guangxi, Guizhou, and Gansu, will do so by this coming weekend.

Despite obvious successes, China’s poor have been buffeted by twin disasters this year: flooding and coronavirus. Floods this summer, the largest in decades, impacted over 54 million people, killing at least 158, and damaged or destroyed over 400,000 homes. Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, quoted by The Japan Times, said “The less-developed regions will sacrifice for more social-economically important cities or industrial regions when the floods threaten the latter. […] The poor regions are damaged worse from natural disasters and have more difficulties in developing. It becomes a vicious circle.” In January the outbreak of the COVID-19 epidemic forced workers to stay home, depriving them of weeks of income. A study conducted by Stanford University’s Rural Education Action Program estimated that China’s 381 million rural migrant and transitory workers cumulatively lost $143 billion in wages in February alone, a loss “higher than the highest estimate of the global economic impact of the SARS virus in 2003.” At The New York Times, Javier C. Hernández explained how flooding and coronavirus disproportionately impacted China’s poor, puncturing the myths surrounding poverty alleviation:

China’s early efforts to fight the spread of Covid-19, including lengthy lockdowns across broad areas of the country, left rural residents stranded hundreds of miles from the factories where they work. Many were unemployed for months. Their children also fell behind, lacking the internet connections or hardware to take part in online classes.

[…] Mr. Jike did not work in the first half of the year because of lockdowns related to the coronavirus. In August, he endured another crisis when severe floods destroyed his home, valued at about $15,000, which he had just finished building. He said he had not received compensation from the government for his losses from the floods, which affected tens of millions of people across China and were the worst in decades.

“We work outside for four seasons a year, but we have no savings,” Mr. Jike said. After the epidemic and the floods, he said, “we couldn’t be poorer.”[Source]

Grave inequality between rural and urban residents further belies rosy state narratives of China’s war against poverty. A recent report by the Center For Strategic & International Studies’ China Power Project detailed stark examples of China’s rural-urban divide. For example, the annual per capita disposable income of Shanghai residents is 50,000 yuan higher than those of inland Gansu. Rural residents eat 13.5% less meat than urban residents. Strikingly, although cancer incidence is higher in urban areas, the cancer mortality rate is 36% higher for rural citizens. This inequality becomes even more stark when compared against China’s global peers. In a recent podcast, Scott Rozelle, co-director of Stanford’s Rural Education Action Program, noted that “500 million Chinese citizens haven’t attended high school, making it the country with the lowest level of education among middle-income countries.” He did add that, in 2018, 87% of 16-17 year olds were in school. At Foreign Affairs, Matthew Chitwood, a fellow at the Institute of Current World Affairs who spent two years living in rural Yunnan, wrote about the severity of China’s unbalanced development and questioned whether China has a post-poverty plan:

Despite the undeniable progress of recent years, many rural Chinese residents are still desperately poor by the standards of the developed world. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development uses a relative poverty line—defined as half of the median disposable income in a given country—to compare standards across societies. If applied to rural China, the relative poverty line in 2019 was 8,010 yuan ($1200) per person per year, nearly double the CCP’s benchmark. So although extreme poverty might be on its way out, China still has a serious problem. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang recently acknowledged this shortcoming, noting that 600 million Chinese still live on a monthly income of 1,000 yuan ($140). “The government says I’m not poor anymore,” one Bangdong neighbor told me earnestly, “but I still feel poor.”

[…] The real long-term challenge, however, is sustainability. It is unclear whether those lifted out of poverty will be able to maintain their sources of income and access to education, health care, and housing after the campaign ends. “It’s a sixiang wenti,” a mindset issue, one party official explained. “It’s impossible to turn an uneducated person into an entrepreneur.” One Bangdong resident, Dalong Huang, has boxes of unsold tea stacked in his house. Absent any long-term government training, he confessed that he has no sales network or marketing strategy other than waiting for an unknown tea boss to show up. Once China’s campaign nominally succeeds at the end of 2020, what prevents the Huang family from falling back into poverty in 2021? [Source]

China’s 14th Five Year Plan, which sets national development goals for 2021 to 2025, committed to deepening rural reforms already initiated under China’s 13th Five Year Plan. But the experience of Shaanxi’s Luëyang village residents demonstrated the precarious successes of poverty alleviation as the campaign moves into a new phase. From Yuan Ye for Sixth Tone:

Community factories have been a popular poverty-alleviation tool countrywide. By mid-2019, about 30,000 such workshops had been built in central and western China, employing around 700,000 members of formerly impoverished households. They are mostly opened by businesspeople looking for cheap inland labor, or are built by the government itself and handed over to officials, according to Xing Chengju, a poverty sociologist at Northwest A&F University in Shaanxi. It’s been difficult for many of these operations to maintain a steady supply of orders and stay profitable, he says. Wang, too, says the workshops in Lüeyang face challenges, including a constant loss of workers, an inability to compete on the market, and insufficient funding from upper-level authorities.

[…] Zhang Jun, director at Shaanxi Research Association for Women and Family, a women’s rights nongovernmental organization working in rural Shaanxi, tells Sixth Tone the current targeted poverty-alleviation efforts don’t sufficiently take gender into account. With poor households now counting on factory work to increase their incomes, he says, a mother in a rural family now has “more burdens” than before, compared with a father who just needs to work. “For many disadvantaged women, the problem they face is how to escape the trap (of poverty and family structures),” says Zhang. He suggests poverty alleviation efforts should include more policies aimed at helping women in particular. [Source]



Subscribe to CDT


Browsers Unbounded by Lantern

Now, you can combat internet censorship in a new way: by toggling the switch below while browsing China Digital Times, you can provide a secure "bridge" for people who want to freely access information. This open-source project is powered by Lantern, know more about this project.

Google Ads 1

Giving Assistant

Google Ads 2

Anti-censorship Tools

Life Without Walls

Click on the image to download Firefly for circumvention

Open popup

Welcome back!

CDT is a non-profit media site, and we need your support. Your contribution will help us provide more translations, breaking news, and other content you love.