China’s poverty alleviation: One of the greatest human rights achievements

One of the greatest human rights achievements in human history is China’s forty years of poverty alleviation – given the fundamental right to socio-economic wellbeing. The World Bank estimates that 850 million people have been lifted out of poverty, but still some remain in poverty. Given that one of the three great challenges for a xiaokang society is absolute poverty elimination, there is a resolute focus to achieve the target. The following is a useful background article from Xinhua News:

During an inspection tour to southwest China’s Chongqing Municipality this week, President Xi Jinping called for greater efforts to win the battle against poverty and realize the goal of building “a moderately prosperous society in all respects” as scheduled.

As the deadline to eradicate absolute poverty approaches, the country is gathering strength to focus on the nation’s poorest people, who mainly dwell in deep mountains with adverse natural environments and backward infrastructure, or have special needs.

It was China’s solemn promise to let poor people and poor areas enter the moderately prosperous society together with the rest of the country, Xi said in a letter to the International Forum on Reform and Opening Up and Poverty Reduction in China, which was held in Beijing last November.

The country’s poverty-reduction drive has been widely recognized as the largest such campaign in history, with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres pointing out that China had contributed the most to world poverty alleviation in the past decade.

Here are some facts on poverty reduction in China.

PEOPLE FIRST

With the world’s largest population, China has been boosting its economic development on one major theme: improving people’s livelihoods. This has become a fundamental goal and a consistent priority in policy-making. A typical example is the development blueprint for building a moderately prosperous society.

— Under that blueprint, China will eradicate absolute poverty by 2020 and double per capita income from 2010 level.

— More than 700 million Chinese people have been lifted out of poverty over the past 40 years. The country’s proportion of people living below the Chinese poverty line fell from 97.5 percent in 1978 to 3.1 percent among the rural population at the end of 2017.

–In the past six years, China lifted 82.39 million rural poor out of poverty, with the rural poor population down from 98.99 million in 2012 to 16.6 million in 2018.

— By the end of 2018, more than half of the 832 poverty-stricken counties had escaped poverty.

— Per capita income of Chinese people increased by nearly 25 times from 1978 to 2018. In 2018, per capita disposable income of rural residents in poverty-stricken areas stood at 10,371 yuan, a 10.6-percent year-on-year rise.

STRONG ROLE OF GOVERNMENT

With Xi Jinping in charge, China’s poverty-relief battle has made decisive progress and provided global poverty relief with Chinese solutions.

–Last June, Xi presided over a meeting of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee to review a plan on efforts in poverty alleviation, stressing that the battle against poverty was one of the “three tough battles” that the country must win to build a moderately prosperous society.

–Last October, the CPC Central Committee arranged a new round of disciplinary inspections targeting poverty alleviation, the first of its kind, to intensify local governments’ poverty-reduction efforts.

— To wipe out absolute poverty, governments at all levels have established anti-poverty special departments or leading groups, increased poverty-reduction budgets and ensured eastern economically developed regions to help underdeveloped regions in central and western China.

— State-owned enterprises (SOEs) have taken the lead to support the country’s poverty relief campaign. Ninety-six centrally-administered SOEs have offered targeted support to 246 poverty-stricken counties, or 41.6 percent of the key counties under the national poverty-relief program. They have also set up poverty alleviation funds of 18.18 billion yuan (about 2.7 billion U.S. dollars) and invested 14 billion yuan in nearly 100 aid projects.

TARGETED APPROACH

China has adopted a targeted approach, which requires officials to identify actual impoverished people and the factors that caused their poverty.

— A large legion of capable officials have been selected to guide poverty relief work. For example, officials with business savvy were sent to poverty-stricken villages, while officials with specialized industrial knowledge were sent to villages with an industrial base. As a result, each household or even family member has been given a bespoke poverty relief plan.

— Apart from setting a multi-year timetable, China also targeted different policies to different regions, including developing business, relocating the poor, compensating farmers in ecologically fragile areas, encouraging education and improving social security.

— The independent development of needy residents has been enhanced using areas including e-commerce, financing, tourism and infrastructure improvements.

— During his inspection tour in Chongqing, Xi said that people who still live under the poverty line or slip back into poverty due to illness should be the priority of poverty alleviation projects, and should receive support such as minimum-living allowances, medical insurance and medical aid.

 

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Chinese Trust in the Government

The overwhelming majority of Chinese people trust their government like no other country on earth. This may seem strange to some foreigners who routinely mistrust their government. Yet the statistics speak for themselves. For example, the Edelman Trust Barometer of 2019 notes a rise in the general public’s trust of the government and public institutions to a staggering 86 percent. Meanwhile, the monthly Ipsos surveys indicate that on average 90 percent of people have confidence in the direction in which China is headed. And in the five-yearly World Values Survey, the vast majority trust the government to promote human rights in China and throughout the world.

Why is this the case? One reason is of course the effect of Xi Jinping’s leadership, with effective rule by law and its closely associated Social Credit System, anti-corruption campaign and recovery of both traditional Chinese and Marxist values.

Yet, this is only part of the story. The assumption of trust in governance runs deep in Chinese society – assuming of course that the government in question has earned that trust. To understand how this works at a deeper cultural and social level, we need to go back a few centuries.

He Xiu’s Three Worlds

Important here is a certain He Xiu, who lived from 129 to 182 CE. He Xiu wrote a commentary on a commentary; more precisely, he wrote a commentary on the Gongyang commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals (reputedly edited by none other than Confucius). This particular history is not so important here. Instead, He Xiu[1] introduced a crucial distinction between three terms:

  1. What is ‘rumoured [suochuanwen]’.
  2. What is ‘heard [suowen]’ and thus reliably recorded.
  3. What is ‘seen [suojian]’ and therefore verifiable.

The importance of this distinction can hardly be underestimated. What is rumoured concerns words and indeed a world that is ‘decayed and disordered [shuailuan]’. This is a world of chaos in which the heart is ‘course and unrefined [cucu]’, the country is broken up into small warring states and the records virtually non-existent. Rumours abound of skulduggery, assassination, intrigue and inappropriate behaviour in light of established rituals. In other words, hearsay and gossip are highly unreliable, to be mistrusted at every turn.

By contrast, the world that is reliably reported is one that has written records, which enables the unity of the many different Chinese peoples. It is clearly better that rumour, hearsay and chaos, but it still has its problems. The best is the world that is ‘seen’ and therefore empirically verifiable. One has first-hand evidence, or what is now called scientific evidence, truth from facts (shishi qiushi), as Deng Xiaoping said on many occasions. This verifiable world is united, whether distant or nearby, large or small, and even the heart (xin) or inner being is now deep and thoroughly known (xiang).

In Chinese history, the prime body responsible for reliable records and verified facts is of course the government. Indeed, these are signs of good governance and thereby one that can be trusted.

He Xiu’s distinction has many further ramifications today, whether the refusal of newspapers to engage in gossip, the scepticism concerning oral traditions, the transparency of political statements, or the need for any government statistics to be based on solid research. Let me focus on three examples.

Mao Zedong’s Works

The first concerns editions of Mao Zedong’s works. In China, there are two main editions, The Works of Mao Zedong (Mao Zedong Wenji) and The Selected Works of Mao Zedong (Mao Zedong xuanji). Apart from these two, there are a number of other small collections, relating to early writings or those on specific topics. These have all been carefully produced by the Central Compilation and Translation Bureau, which is fully resourced and responsible for reliable editions of all works in the Marxist tradition.

At the same time, there are a number of other editions of Mao’s works, the most notable being Mao Zedong ji, published in 20 volumes in Japan. While most Chinese scholars have copies of this edition, they are also suspicious. Why? An individual scholar has edited the works rather than a major institution funded by the government. Is it reliable? Can it be cited? Not sure. One has to wary indeed when relying on such material. And the five volume collection, Mao Zedong Thought Lives Forever, published without a place, date or editorship during the Cultural Revolution, is way beyond any form of reliability.

Number of Christians in China

The second example concerns the number of Christians in China. This has been the subject of what are now called the ‘Internet Wars’. The official government figure is 38 million, which foreigners interested in such matters disregard since they suspect that the government wishes to downplay the numbers. Instead, they postulate more than 100 million, based on an anecdote: supposedly Ye Xiaowen, the former director of the State Administration of Religious Affairs, mentioned in a closed-door meeting at Peking University in 2006 that there were more than 100 million Christians in China. The problem here is that those who like to cite this anecdote provide no source for the statement, third-party evidence or indeed check with Ye Xiaowen himself. It turns out that – according to scholars who were actually present at the event – Ye Xiaowen had never said that there were more than 100 million Christians in China, but he did say that there were at that time more than 100 million religious believers. The difference is obvious, and the foreigners who like to peddle this number draw on unreliable rumour.

By now I am drawing on an article published in early 2019,[2] based on a long-term project at Peking University: the ‘China Family Panel Studies’. Carefully calibrated so as to be relevant to Chinese conditions, relying on a vast survey sample with multiple follow-ups, this sociological survey found in 2016 that there were 39.69 million Christians in China (about 2.8 percent of the population), of which 28.29 were ‘open Christians’ and 11.67 million ‘hidden Christians’. The ‘open Christians’ can mostly be attributed to the many legal forms of Christianity in China, such as the Three-Self Patriotic Movement churches (Protestant) and the recently united Roman Catholic Church, while the ‘hidden Christians’ are mostly from the illegal ‘house churches’.

While these figures are derived from a completely independent sociological survey, it is scientifically based and relies on the assumption that one can only trust what is recorded and verifiable. Tellingly, it is very close to the government figures for Christians in China, for the government does not release figures unless they are based on what can be verified.

As for the speculative foreigners, they are simply relying on hearsay and rumour.

Concept of (U)topia

The third example concerns utopia, which in the Western European tradition refers to both a no-place and a good-place. Typically, writings about utopia postulate a world yet to be realised, on a distant island (Thomas More’s Utopia), in the distant future (William Morris’s News From Nowhere), or even on another planet. The accounts are typically imaginative, hearsay upon hearsay, if not rumour itself. Obviously, if the world in question does not exist and therefore cannot be experienced, one must rely on nothing more than rumour and imagination. In other words, it is a transcendent world, much better than ours, but one that we cannot know empirically.

Let us go back to He Xiu, for his threefold distinction of rumoured, recorded and verified is actually the background to a major contribution to the Chinese tradition concerning what is often known as ‘utopia’. But his proposal is completely opposed to Western European assumptions. In more detail, He Xiu proposed three worlds:

  1. The ‘decayed and disordered world [shuailuan]’, which is characterised by rumour and gossip (suochuanwen).
  2. The world of ‘rising peace [shengping]’, which is determined by what is heard and recordable (suowen).
  3. The world of ‘great peace [taiping]’, which can only be known by seeing and is therefore verifiable (suojian).

By now you can see what has happened. What in the Western tradition is called ‘utopia’, based on rumour, is actually the world of decay and disorder. What cannot be known is highly undesirable, with plots, skulduggery and lack of unity.

By contrast, the world of rising peace can be recorded, leading to unity at least within the country and relative stability and security. But the most verifiable world is precisely that of the ‘Great Peace’ or what is also called the ‘Great Harmony [datong]’. This world can hardly be connected with the Western tradition of utopia, although not a few have tried to do so. Why? It is not a world of rumour and innuendo, but one that can be verified empirically and through scientific investigation.

Thus, ‘utopia’ is a particularly bad term to use in this context. If we stay with the Greek origins of the terms, the best term would be topos, a definite place, and the Chinese tradition concerning the Great Peace and the Great Harmony would have to be called ‘Topian Thought’.

Trusting the Government

Let us return to question of trust in governance. As mentioned earlier, throughout Chinese history, the body responsible for recording and verifying information has been the government itself. Given the size of the country, government has always been a somewhat large affair, and in this respect at least the communist government carries on a long tradition. Of course, it has a distinct trajectory determined by Marxism, but it is still responsible for the most reliable information, for it has the best resources to ensure such information.

I would like to close with an unexpected contribution from He Xiu, a contribution carried through in the later tradition via Kang Youwei’s Book of Datong and Deng Xiaoping’s evocation – in a communist framework – of the old Confucian category of a xiaokang society (one that is moderately well-off, healthy and peaceful). For Deng Xiaoping and even more those who followed – Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and especially Xi Jinping – this xiaokang society is the goal of the initial socialist phase of the new China, to be achieved by 2020.

This xiaokang society is equivalent now with what He Xiu called the world of ‘rising peace’. Most importantly, it is a world that about which one has reliable knowledge and is therefore able to provide reliable records. What does this mean for the core political program of achieving a xiaokang society in all respects by 2020? Is it merely political spin, a vague promise with little content? Not at all: it entails detailed and innovative planning, targeted projects, scientific analysis and rigorous assessment of results. For example, Xi Jinping has identified a peaceful and law-abiding country, environmental protection, and poverty alleviation as the three greatest challenges. Massive resources and initiatives have gone into each, with the Social Credit System, a wholesale shift away from environmentally destructive practices, and a last great push to lift the final 10 million people out of poverty (850 million since 1978).

Will these targets be achieved? Final assessment will tell. But one thing is clear: without them, a xiaokang society in unachievable; with them, it will be achieved. But such a society must be thoroughly recordable and verifiable. Trust in government turns on this fact.

Notes

[1] He Xiu. 1980. Chunqiu gongyangzhuan zhuxu. 28 vols. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, p. 2200. Many editions of this work exist, in 28 volumes. It may also be found at https://ctext.org/wiki.pl?if=gb&res=642006&remap=gb.

[2] Lu Yunfeng, Wu Yue, and Zhang Chunni. 2019. ‘Zhongguo daodi you duoshao jidutu? Jiyu zhongguo jiating zhuizong diaocha de guji’. Kaifang shidai zazhi 2019 (1):1-14. http://www.wyzxwk.com/Article/shehui/2019/01/398823.html.

Preparing to move to a moderately peaceful, healthy and prosperous (xiaokang) society

Word in the CPC for a while has been that preparations are under way for a major transition in China. Until now, China has been in the first or preliminary stage of socialism. But if you study Xi Jinping’s first volume of writings, The Governance of China, you will already find the terminology of ‘socialist modernisation [shehuizhuyi xiandaihu]’, and a ‘moderately well-off society [xiaokang shehui]’. Xiaokang is an old Confucian term that had made its way into Chinese Marxist terminology. It is not the Datong, the ‘Great Harmony’, but a more realistic situation in which the vast majority can feel secure (anquangan) about food, shelter, clothing and well-being.

When will this take place? The target is the period of the Two Centenaries. The first centenary is 100 years since the founding of the Communist Party of China, in 2021, and the second is the founding of the People’s Republic in 2049.

All this is now becoming even more explicit, in preparations for the 19th Congress of the CPC in November this year. These congresses take place every five years, so preparations are under way. Already we find a number of key statements.

First, Xi has declared that socialism with Chinese characteristics is entering a ‘new development stage‘, if not a ‘new historical starting point’. Thus far, Chinese socialism has enabled the transitions from ‘standing-up to becoming better-off to getting stronger’, but now ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics has expanded the pathway to modernization for developing countries, thus providing Chinese wisdom and Chinese solutions to problems facing mankind’.

So what does all this mean in concrete terms? To begin with, a xiaokang society has lifted as many people out of poverty as possible. In the last 40 years, 750 million people lifted out of poverty (one of the greatest human rights achievements of all time), with more than 55 million since 2012. And Xi has made the continuance of this program a cornerstone of his presidency. A shade over 43 million remain in poverty in rural areas, with about 12 million a year making it out of poverty.

It also includes continual overhauling of the medical system, education, fostering supply-side structural reform, reducing overcapacity, dealing with the income gap, and – crucially – clean governance.

If these aims are indeed achieved between 2021 and 2049, then the xiaokang society will indeed have been attained.