In 1980, Deng Xiaoping observed: ‘‘Poverty is not socialism, socialism means eliminating poverty’.
In 2013, Xi Jinping was visiting a poverty-stricken village – Shibadong – among the Miao minority in Hunan province and suggested that the approach to eradicating poverty was to ‘keep track of every household and individual in poverty to verify that their treatment is having the desired effect’.
This led to the program of ‘targetted poverty alleviation‘, which tailors poverty alleviation to the specific conditions in each location. Indeed, it was this targetted approach that was also used in all the many parts of China to contain the COVID-19 epidemic. The outbreak entailed a pause in the poverty alleviation program, but the latter is now getting back on track.
I have written a few earlier posts on poverty alleviation, noting that in China more than 800 million people have been lifted out of poverty, or 7 out of 10 in the world. This achievement has been hailed as one of the greatest human rights achievements in history, in which the Chinese Marxist focus on the core human right to socio-economic wellbeing is paramount.
But let us go back to Deng Xiaoping, since I am completing a long chapter on his theory and practice. One of Deng’s major concerns was the heresy of ‘poor socialism’. We find this tradition in Western Europe with the idea of ascetic communism – lambasted already by Marx and Engels. In China, a localised version was promoted for a time during the Cultural Revolution, when some suggested that poor socialism was better than rich capitalism.
Deng Xiaoping would have nothing of this heresy. In 1980, he pointed out: ‘If the economy remains stagnant for a long period of time, it cannot be called socialism. If the people’s living standards remain at a very low level for a long period of time, it cannot be called socialism’.
One of the problems faced by communist revolutions is that they took place in poorer parts of the world, in places that suffered under Western imperialism and colonialism, and were thus held back from economic development. Was capitalism perhaps the answer?
Deng was very clear: ‘we do not want capitalism, but neither do we want to be poor under socialism [pinqiong de shehuizhuyi]’. Even more: ‘What we want is socialism in which the productive forces are developed and the country is prosperous and powerful’.
In fact, a capitalist system is unable to bring an end to poverty for the majority, so much so that those who have grown up under a capitalist system have come to assume that you will always have the poor with you.
In reply, Deng Xiaoping’s observation in 1984 is especially pertinent
This brings us back to the question of whether to continue on the socialist road or to stop and turn onto the capitalist road. Capitalism can only enrich less than 10 per cent of the Chinese population; it can never enrich the remaining more than 90 per cent … If we were to apply the capitalist principle of distribution, most of the people would remain mired in poverty and backwardness. But the socialist principle of distribution can enable all the people to lead a relatively comfortable life (xiaokang shenghuo). This is why we want to uphold socialism. Without socialism, China can never achieve that goal.
Or as Xi Jinping has stated on countless occasions, ‘no one will be left behind’.
There is plenty of information available on China’s targetted poverty alleviation project, which aims to remove the remaining few millions (about 1 percent) out of poverty by 2021 – with a current cost of 139 billion RMB. But I would recommend the following:
People’s Daily has a webpage devoted to overviews and specific accounts of poverty alleviation.
One feature of poverty alleviation, especially in the north-west, is re-afforestation of land that had become desert. This story about an 82 year old woman, Otgongerel, who has devoted her life to re-greening the Maowusu desert in Inner Mongolia, is worth a read.
And here is a video concerning another re-greening project in the same desert:
Here is a brief report not only only the world-leading role of China in reafforestation, but it also makes the explicit connection with poverty alleviation:
Finally, concerning Xi Jinping’s now fabled visit to Shibadong village, there are many accounts, but this one sums it up very well (see also here) and this is an excellent video: