Chinese Countryside Better Off Than Ever Before, While Some Reforms Stagnate

In early December, President Xi Jinping declared that China had eliminated absolute poverty. His announcement was the culmination of a years-long campaign that sought to raise the annual income of every person in China’s countryside above 4,000 yuan. The Economist reviewed the campaign and found it largely effective in eliminating the destitution previously endemic to China’s countryside:

Sceptics understandably ask whether China fiddled its numbers in order to win what it calls the “battle against poverty”. There are of course still isolated cases of abject deprivation. China, however, set itself a fairly high bar. It has regularly raised the official poverty line, which, accounting for living costs, is about $2.30 a day at prices prevailing in 2011. (By comparison, the World Bank defines as extremely poor those who make less than $1.90 a day, as roughly a tenth of human beings do. Poverty lines in rich countries are much higher: the equivalent line in America is about $72 a day for a four-member household at 2020 prices.) In 1978, shortly after Mao’s death, nearly 98% of those in the countryside lived in extreme poverty, by China’s current standards. By 2016 that was down to less than 5% (see chart).

[…] The government’s approach changed in 2015 when Xi Jinping, its leader, vowed to eradicate the last vestiges of extreme poverty by the end of 2020. Officials jumped to it. They tried to encourage personal initiative by rewarding poor people who found ways of bettering their lot (see picture). They spent public money widely. In 2015 central-government funding earmarked for poverty alleviation was an average of 500 yuan ($77) per extremely poor person. In 2020 the allocation per head was more than 26,000 yuan (see chart).

[…] A bigger challenge is relative deprivation, a problem abundantly evident to anyone who has travelled between the glitzy coastal cities and the drabber towns of the hinterland. People may have incomes well above the official poverty line, but they can still feel poor. A recent study by Chinese economists concluded that the “subjective poverty line” in rural areas was about 23 yuan per day, nearly twice the amount below which a person would be officially classified as poor. That conforms with a standard used by many economists, namely setting the relative poverty line at half the median income level. It suggests that about a third of rural Chinese still see themselves as poor. [Source]

The campaign is a major point of pride for China’s ruling party. ”Poverty alleviation dramas,” TV shows that glorify similar campaigns past and present, are quite popular. In his Sinocism newsletter, Bill Bishop noted that “Minning Town,” a dramatized small screen depiction of a 1990s poverty alleviation campaign in Ningxia, was purportedly based on a program led by Xi Jinping during his time in provincial government.

Yet stark inequalities remain. Earlier this month, the sudden death of a Sichuan-based livestreamer, brought about by the twin ills of poverty and disease, shocked Chinese netizens. Reporting by Sixth Tone indicates that the “left-behind” children of China’s first economic boom, a reference to their rural childhoods spent apart from their who labored along China’s coast, are today confronted with the same impossible choices of their parents.

Indermit Gill, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, believes that China’s poverty line is nearly $20 lower than where it should be, meaning up to 90% of the population could be considered impoverished. The Economist reviewed Scott Rozelle and Natalie Hell’s “Invisible China,” a book that exposed the shockingly unequal conditions that define lie in rural China:

After decades of research, Mr Rozelle and Ms Hell present some startling data. Their team gave an iq-like test to thousands of rural Chinese toddlers. They found that more than 50% were cognitively delayed and unlikely to reach an iq of 90 (in a typical population, only 16% score so poorly). There were several reasons for this.

Half of rural babies are undernourished. Caregivers (often illiterate grandmothers) cram them with rice, noodles and steamed buns, not realising that they also need micronutrients. Studies in 2016 and 2017 found that a quarter of rural children in central and western China suffer from anaemia (lack of iron), which makes it hard for them to concentrate in school. Two-fifths of rural children in parts of southern China have intestinal worms, which sap their energy. A third of rural 11- and 12-year-olds have poor vision but no glasses, so struggle to read their schoolbooks.

[…] Among the entire labour force in 2010, 44% of urban and 11% of rural Chinese had graduated from . Among the current crop of students, the figures are much better: 97% of urban students graduated from high school in 2015, and 80% of rural children went to a high school of some sort. But the rural “high schools” were often dreadful, opened rapidly to meet official targets and staffed by teachers with little interest in teaching. The authors tested thousands of children at “vocational” rural high schools, and found that 91% had learned practically nothing: they scored the same or worse on tests at the end of a year of schooling as at the beginning. [Source]


At The Financial Times, Kristen Looney wrote on the challenges created for newly urbanized farmers by China’s campaign-style approach to poverty alleviation:

But Mr Xi’s milestone is not about economic growth lifting all boats or an authoritarian government simply declaring poverty gone. It reflects China’s status as a campaign state, or a mobilisational regime, whose leaders have long relied on the extraordinary deployment of resources and people to accomplish key goals.

[…]But for tens of millions of families, poverty alleviation has meant abandoning their homes, farmland and village communities, and moving into mass housing complexes on the outskirts of unfamiliar cities. Many have assumed debt to purchase the subsidised housing. It is unlikely, given China’s slowing economy, that the proliferation of “peasant apartments” on the urban fringe has been accompanied by sufficient non-farm jobs. The result may be concentrated poverty, as previous inequalities are reproduced.

[…] By barrelling on with the anti-poverty campaign, China remains on course to become a “moderately prosperous society” by the middle of this year. But integrating this fabricated into the rest of the economy will be a feat of a different scale.  [Source]

Xi Jinping’s address to the recent Central Rural Work Conference gave little indication that future rural reforms might include significant changes to the hukouor household registrationsystem, a long-cherished goal of activists, rural residents, and academics alike. At The South China Morning Post, Zhou Xin reported on Xi’s speech, which heralded the end of the poverty alleviation campaign while introducing its successor “comprehensive rural revitalization”:

It is a remarkable improvement from 2000 when Li Changping, a rural cadre, wrote in a famous letter to then-premier Zhu Rongji that “our peasants are really suffering, our countryside is really poor, and our farming is in great danger”.

But despite this, the countryside remains a weak link. Per capita income in rural China is around a third of that in urban areas, and retail sales – a rough measure of consumer spending – was just a sixth of that in urban areas last year, even though 40 per cent of the population lives in the countryside.

[…] The meeting, however, did not offer any substantial changes to the existing institutional framework in rural China. Land will continue to be owned collectively and contracted to rural households for a very long period of time, while grass-roots governance will be firmly in the hands of Communist Party cells.

[…] As such, China’s rural revitalisation will be about the commercialisation of agriculture, the improvement of public services, and fixing problems such as pollution. [Source]

A second stagnant era of rural reform is village democracy. The Economist published an analysis of the “carrying across one shoulder” system that spells the end of rural democracy in all but name:

In 2018 the party began calling for all-out efforts to implement a system it describes as yijiantiao, or “carrying across one shoulder”. This refers to the way that farmers suspend two loads on either end of a pole across their backs. In this case the loads are the two parallel structures that run China’s villages: the elected village committees and the party committees. The party wants memberships of both committees to be the same, and to be led by a single person: the village party secretary.

[…] This requires some sleight of hand. The election law says that “no organisation or individual may designate, appoint or replace any member” of elected committees. But localities have introduced rules that all but ensure the village party secretary gets the concurrent job of village chief. Commonly, the village’s party members (usually just a small fraction of the population) choose a party secretary and other members of the party committee—ie, endorse the choice made by higher-ups. Next, a member of this committee organises the election for the post of village chief. Finally an election is held in which every adult villager may vote. The party secretary wins.

[…] A tighter vetting system typically ensures that no one stands against him (village leaders are rarely female). It involves consulting official organs in the local township, including the police. These can block the candidacy of a wide range of people. The south-western of Kunming, for example, has a list of ineligible types called the “seven forbiddens and 15 unsuitables”. Among the forbiddens are “politically two-faced” people. A propaganda video explains this with an illustration of a man dreaming of a protest for freedom and democracy. The unsuitables include those with “strong religious feelings”: a cartoon shows people bowing to a Jesus-like figure. [Source]

The tighter controls on village elections mirror general trends at the level. At The Center for Strategic & International Studies, Jude Blanchette published a translation of an internal document that laid out officials’ governing priorities, namely fighting against “hostile forces”:

In order to better understand local-level governance, the CSIS Freeman Chair is releasing the following translation of an official notice by the town’s CCP committee on the eve of the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s (PRC) in 2019. The lengthy document comprehensively catalogues various economic, political, and security risks, many of them understandable, while others seem more fanciful or remote. Interestingly, a large portion of the document is focused on protecting Niangziguan from so-called “hostile forces,” including overseas elements of the Catholic church and pro-democracy activists. While it is possible that Niangziguan officials truly believe that the town must actively guard against “color revolutions” (as the document declares), it is more likely that Xi Jinping’s relentless campaign to snuff out any and all threats to the CCP has infused small-town governance. Regardless, the document is a revealing window into the concerns of the CCP in the first half of the twenty-first century.

Here is an excerpt of two of the directives included in Blanchette’s CSIS report:

  1. Prevent and crack down on “color revolutions” [颜色革命]. Keep a close eye on major activities, sensitive points, and hotspots, closely monitor new developments in disruption and destruction by hostile forces [敌对势力], and establish and improve control mechanisms for key political figures, organizations, and groups. Strictly prevent infiltration by hostile forces into ethnic, religious, and other fields; interference by hostile forces using sensitive cases, mass incidents, and the “rights-defense” activities of interest groups; and hostile forces from engaging in activities that undermine political security and social stability, never allowing the formation of flag bearers [扛旗人物], nor the emergence of illegal parties and activities, nor the formation of political opposition.[…] 8. Eliminate blind spots in the supervision of social groups. Emphasize and improve the level of social-organization management, accelerate construction of information platforms, and guide social organizations to participate in public services and provide public products so we can make full use of their positive role in social-governance innovation. Strictly prevent overseas NGOs, as well as certain domestic social organizations that receive Western support, from going around under the banners of “democracy,” “human rights,” “religion,” “charity,” “environmental protection,” and “poverty alleviation.” Strengthen oversight of overseas organizations’ activities in our town, quickly grasp the fundamentals and figure out the situation, and actively guide them in operating in accordance with laws and regulations. [Source]
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