Globe: China's Eclipsed Poverty Struggle

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In October, President Xi Jinping of China pledged at the 19th Communist Party Conference that he intends to lift 70 million Chinese citizens out of poverty by 2020. The plan is an instrumental part of President Xi’s second five-year term of office as the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. The target of the proposed reforms is China’s rural population, most of which still live in extreme poverty. Over 43 million people in China survive on less than $350 a year. Around 550 million live on a less than $5.50 a day. However optimistic, the announcement is met with some anxiety as this is not the first time China has made such drastic goals.

After the death of Mao Zedong, China began a series of economic reforms to roll back the communist orthodoxy promoted under the Mao regime. In a series of reforms such as opening up the once isolated nation to even greater foreign investment, the economic situation of the People’s Republic began to improve drastically. In the thirty years since the reformation of the economy, more than 500 million people were lifted out of poverty and the living standards of 1.3 billion Chinese rose as well. This is a success that is unprecedented in world history, as Xi Jinping is fond of touting.

When the World Bank initiated the tracking of poverty in China in 1981, more than 88 percent of the Chinese population (around 870 million people) lived on less than $1.90 per day. Expand the definition of extreme to those living on less than $3.10, and 99.1 percent of Chinese people were in poverty.

In 2010, the last year the World Bank collected data on Chinese poverty, the number of Chinese living on less than $1.90 a day has lowered to 11.2 percent of the population, or about 150 million people. Around 360 million people, or 27.2 percent of the Chinese population, still live on less than $3.10 a day.

The complication that arises with analyzing poverty is that the term “poverty” is relative. For example, poverty in the United States is defined as a family of four living on less than $24,000. And in America, those considered to be poor or economically disadvantaged still have more living space than middle class residents of European countries.

Furthermore, the poor in America often have multiple TVs, possibly a vehicle and reports of children going hungry are scarce. By contrast, many rural Chinese people who live on less than $550 a year, live within close proximity to their livestock, often lack basic luxuries such as running water, and have little access to information. In a word, even though there have been vast improvements to Chinese economic standards, those standards must be seen within the frame of the Chinese movement’s definition of success – a definition that many other nations would consider crippling poverty.

Much of the economic rise of Chinese people comes from the mass movement from urban to rural areas in the last decades. The Chinese government is seeking to repeat the phenomenon by uprooting farmers from their land in putting them in the cities. The logic, at least to the central government, is that the access to social benefits and services would cause these rural people to be more financially successful today as it did in the past. However, optimism may be blinding the central government to their own history of such engineering.

China has a deplorable history of economic improvement via uprooting. The Great Leap Forward initiated by Mao Zedong led to one of the greatest human disasters in history. In four years, an estimated 45 million people died as a result of the economic engineering of communist policies. While the so-called “War on Poverty” launched in October will not be tainted by Maoist zeal, the disconcerting nature that the regime in China takes towards human rights is still in effect. When the central government speaks of relocating rural citizens to the city, they do not mean global cities that the Chinese government wants shown off such as Beijing.

Cities like Beijing have put a cap on migrants coming into the city to block the tide of rural people flooding their schools and public services. And first-arts cities are known to take measures to clear their streets of unwanted migrants by pursuing policies such as demolishing the poor housing centers. What the central government has in mind for uprooted migrants is for them to go to second-rate cities that lack much of the basic services that first-rate cities like Beijing enjoy.

The untold story of China’s rise is that it is the story of a government becoming more powerful, not the people. In the 20th century, as America became the world’s dominant superpower, the middle and lower income groups in America grew with the nation. The same cannot be said of China. As China expands influence into the South China sea and competes for regional hegemony, the Chinese people have been left behind to not enjoy the same success as their government.

China’s greatest economic challenge is to build a bridge between a factory economy into a middle-class and technical economy like China’s neighbors in Japan and South Korea. The possibility of that seems in question as the Chinese government is choosing to pursue economic uplift via social engineering and is exerting a degree of class discrimination against rural peasants being taken from their homes.