Chinese President Xi Jinping solemnly declared "complete victory" in eradicating absolute poverty during a conference in Beijing on Thursday. China has lifted all rural poor people out of extreme poverty under the current standard, with 832 counties, 128,000 villages, and nearly 100 million impoverished people shaking off poverty. How did China make it? What does the role of the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) play during the arduous process? Four foreign experts shared their views with the Global Times on China's successful poverty alleviation.
Robert Lawrence Kuhn, chairman of The Kuhn Foundation and recipient of the China Reform Friendship Medal (2018)
China's success in eradicating extreme poverty is founded on three powerful principles: CPC leadership, General Secretary Xi's commitment, and CPC mobilization.
First, the operational leadership of the CPC is not just about giving directives and pronouncements but actually implementing programs and projects through the CPC organizational structure - central government and five levels of local government (provincial, municipal, county, township, village).
The five levels are run directly by Party secretaries - five levels of Party secretaries — and I followed their work on poverty alleviation, tracked each Party secretary's specific domains of responsibility as well as how their collective work articulated together. All these Party secretaries considered poverty alleviation to be their most important task — and I have been around China long enough to know that they weren't putting on a show for me, they weren't faking it, trying to impress me (perhaps thinking I might write, report or film something).
Second, the commitment of General Secretary Xi, who by voicing his personal leadership repeatedly and by allocating his personal time overtly, sets an example that leaders and officials must follow. Visiting poor villages has been a key part of Xi's more than 80 domestic inspections since he was elected general secretary of the CPC Central Committee in late 2012. Similarly, during the coronavirus epidemic, when Xi visited hospitals and spoke with frontline workers, the whole country got the message. Almost everywhere Xi goes, he stresses poverty alleviation and encourages Party cadres to visit impoverished areas regularly and interact with local people directly.
Xi has made poverty alleviation an emblem of his leadership. Alleviating poverty is what Xi cares most about and on which he spends the most energy. He said in 2017, "We should mobilize the energies of our whole Party, our whole country, and our whole society, and continue to implement targeted poverty reduction and alleviation measures."
Speaking at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation CEO Summit in November 2017, Xi made the remarkable statement: "I have spent more energy on poverty alleviation than on anything else." I know no other national leader who has made such an assertion.
Since the 18th CPC National Congress in late 2012, Xi has visited scores of poverty-stricken villages and households; on almost every domestic trip he makes, he makes a point to understand the local poverty situation and what is being done to alleviate poverty.
Third, the mobilization capacity of the CPC and the ability to command the country's resources in personnel and materials. For example, during the pandemic, assigning "sister" relationships between strong provinces and specific cities in Hubei, a strategy long employed in poverty alleviation between eastern and western provinces and cities.
Although other developing countries have different conditions and cultures, China rightly believes its poverty alleviation experience can help.
Among developing countries, only China has achieved rapid development and large-scale poverty reduction, with the poor sharing the fruits of reform and opening-up over the four decades and with the intractably poor finally brought out of poverty over the last seven years or so. For good reason, China's poverty alleviation accomplishments have been called a developmental miracle.
When China's 2020 poverty alleviation mission is completed, China will have achieved the poverty reduction goal of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development 10 years ahead of schedule. No other country has brought so many people out of poverty, and did so in such a short period of time. China asserts that these historic achievements validate the country's socialist political system, which means the continuing leadership of the CPC.
What can the world learn from China's success in poverty alleviation? Many things, to be sure. Certainly, China hopes to share its poverty reduction experience - all aspects of it - with the world community, especially the poorest nations.
But first, a caveat. Each country is different. Each culture has its own history; the natures of different peoples are indeed different. We cannot take programs from one country and impose them wholly, without adaptation, on another country.
However, the principles are what's important. And China's principles of poverty alleviation are clear: "targeted" poverty alleviation employs specific measures to fit specific circumstances and needs, and a clear organizational structure to implement those measures, monitor them, and check them.
Nonetheless, to me, what is even clearer is this. For a country to make a success of poverty alleviation, the No.1 criterion is that the leadership of the country must make an absolute and resolute commitment to accomplish it. Again, General Secretary Xi's unambiguous assertion: "I have spent more energy on poverty alleviation than on anything else." This sends a powerful message to officials at all levels, indeed to the entire country.
So, this is the big lesson to learn: the senior leader of the country needs to make the overall mission of poverty alleviation a high priority for the nation. Nothing less will do.
Then, one individual needs to be empowered, by senior leadership, with the authority and resources to implement the national program.
Liu Yongfu, head of the State Council Leading Group Office of Poverty Alleviation and Development, explained to me his action-oriented mission; "22 provinces with large poverty-stricken populations have made a solemn pledge to the central government to complete poverty alleviation before the end of 2020. We treat this task as if it's a military order."
We think of poverty programs in terms of criteria, measures, mechanisms and procedures. And indeed, China has pioneered micro-businesses, education, relocating whole villages, eco-compensation, and social security. These can be adapted to other countries, as can the Party-led organizational system of implementing poverty alleviation through the "five levels" of local government.
Bottomline, though, what all countries should recognize in the fight against poverty is the critical importance of motivating officials to make poverty alleviation a priority in the hierarchy of values in their work. This can come only from the top down. This is a big lesson that China offers to the world.
While rightly celebrating China's historic eradication of all extreme poverty, a monumental accomplishment for the ages, President Xi set immediately to work in redressing relative poverty, recognizing the country's ongoing imbalance between urban and rural areas by calling for "rural vitalization" as "a historic shift" in focusing on agriculture, rural areas and farmers. Xi sent an unambiguous signal that wide urban-rural gaps are not acceptable, that rural areas and farmers are "the ballast" for the country, as he called for "rural vitalization" to ensure that farmers become affluent and well-off. Exemplifying this new development stage, China has established the National Administration of Rural Revitalization, a new agency to maintain momentum generated by the State Council Leading Group Office of Poverty Alleviation and Development.
It reminded me of what Xi told me in 2006 when he was Party chief of Zhejiang Province. "It is fair to say that we have achieved some successes," Xi said when we met in Hangzhou; "nevertheless, we should have a cautious appraisal of our accomplishments." Xi emphasized that China cannot be satisfied with the status quo: "We should never overestimate our accomplishments or indulge ourselves in our achievements," he said. He called for China to aspire to "our next higher goal," and to appreciate "the gap between where we are and where we have to go." He described this as "a persistent and unremitting process."
His words back then are fitting commentary on what he says as President in 2021, as China transitions from poverty alleviation to rural vitalization and ushers in a new stage of rural development.
Jorge Heine, a research professor at the Pardee School of Global Studies, Boston University
Humanity has made enormous progress in reducing poverty and extreme poverty in the past 40 years - notably in the current phase of globalization that started in 1980. This has been especially apparent in Asia, and particularly in the two Asian giants, China and India, but also, albeit to a lesser degree, in Africa and Latin America. There is little doubt that the increase in the flow of goods, services, capital and communications across borders has brought in its wake an enormous increase in economic activity, in progress, and in wealth creation.
China's role in poverty reduction is especially noteworthy, and the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were achieved in large part because China lifted some 800 million people out of poverty since it kicked off reform and opening up. This has changed the face of China, and with a $10,000 per capita GDP, China today is a very different country from what it was in 1980. Whereas in 1978, the incidence of rural poverty was 97.5 percent, this figure was reduced to 3.1 percent in 2017. From 1978 to 2017, China has shown an annual average poverty reduction of 19 million people.
To an important degree, this is a consequence of sheer economic growth. By growing at an average of 10 percent a year for 30 years in a row, something no economist thought was possible for any country, let alone one the size of China, enormous wealth has been created. The Chinese people are so much better off as a result. Yes, this growth has not been equally spread across all of China. City dwellers earn, on average, three times as much as their rural counterparts; the coastal areas are better off than the interior; and the South and the East do much better than the North and the West.
Yet, over the past few years, an effort has been made to address this issue, and provinces like landlocked Guizhou, which had been especially affected by high poverty rates, have managed to eradicate extreme poverty, as measured by Chinese standards. The point is that, far from relying solely on economic growth by itself to reduce poverty, public policies targeted the counties mostly affected by it. This meant investing in infrastructure like water supply, roads, and networks, as well as equipping educational, health and cultural facilities, above and beyond normal budgetary allocations.
The result has been that in areas like western China, the number of people living in poverty dropped from 50.86 million in 2012 to 16.34 million in 2017, and the incidence of poverty from 17.6 percent in 2012 to 5.6 percent in 2017. One concern expressed by international agencies is whether this enormous effort, which has required a vast allocation of resources, is sustainable. Many would say that is the next big challenge in China's poverty alleviation program, one on which the jury is still out.
In China, poverty has been closely associated with the rural areas and with remote locations. Integrating its vast, 9.6 million square kilometers territory via adequate transport and communications has been China's challenge since times immemorial. By doing this through its 120,000 kilometers of railway lines (30,000 kilometers of high-speed) and mobile telecommunications technology wielded by 1.3 billion mobile phone owners (as has happened over the past decade and a half), China has created many more economic opportunities for previously isolated communities.
By 2017, 98.5 percent of Chinese villages had phone access and 86.5 percent had access to cable TV signals. The fast growth of e-commerce, of which China has 40 percent of worldwide totals, has also played a key role, allowing the access of remote communities to consumer markets in the big cities and urban areas.
A key point to keep in mind here is the issue of physical and digital connectivity. As the world moves toward a service economy, being connected is of the essence. And this is where China's Belt and Road Initiative comes in. Although it started as a project to recreate Eurasia, it soon evolved into something much more ambitious. What China is saying to countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America is: railways, mobile telephones and broadband access worked for us. Perhaps they will work for you as well.
John Ross, a senior fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China, former director of Economic and Business Policy for the Mayor of London
President Xi hailed the country's achievement of eradicating extreme poverty as a miracle that shall "go down in history." That is totally, literally true. It was not an exaggeration. This is mainly because it's a socialist country. This is the biggest achievement in poverty reduction in the whole of human history. There have been so many people and such a large proportion of humanity being lifted out of poverty in such a short period of time. It was done by the CPC and the government of China. It was done by enormous, hard work, and by having a correct social and economic system. It shows that socialism is something which delivers for people. Now it's the same as the way that China has been protected in COVID-19.
I wouldn't call it a miracle. I would say that it shows the correctness of the policies which have been pursued. I think it's just very inspiring. It's the biggest contribution to human rights made by any country in the world.
In comparison with some Western countries, China has its advantages in dealing with poverty. Again, it comes down to the great advantages of the political system in China. But that has a real meaning.
It was the socialist system in China which is able to make its economy grow so fast. To lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty can only be done with the growth of the whole economy.
And also it involves the direct role of CPC and a conscious policy of the current government. Over 1500 members of the CPC died during the anti-poverty campaign because of the very adverse circumstances. It's the same as in the situation with COVID-19. The CPC can mobilize people in every part of society.
There are still many regions and countries suffering from poverty. There are many things they can learn from China. The most important thing is China sets poverty alleviation as the top goal. They put it as priority.
China has a very big group of cooperated people, whose total job is to get some people out of poverty.
China also has an overriding target. I know that due to the COVID-19 situation, China did not set the target for economic growth. But it has a clear target of eliminating poverty. And therefore, that means a total priority was given to poverty elimination. So it means it was set as an absolutely dominating policy of the state. And that's what requires other countries to take - make the elimination of poverty as the top priority of the government.
China accounts more than 70 percent of the reduction of poverty in the world. The situation in the world on poverty would be remote without what China has done. So China's contribution to poverty elimination and therefore to the real improvement to human rights is absolutely overwhelming.
Some Western media said it remains to be seen whether China's work on poverty relief can continue. This is very funny. Many books from the West have predicted that China is about to collapse for decades, but it would not happen.
China has done poverty reduction by enabling people to produce. What China has done is more sustainable because it's been done by creating infrastructure. It's been mainly done by greatly improving their actual conditions of life, their housing and their ability to make a living. That means it's much more sustainable.
Ei Sun OH, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs
In general, China's successful eradication of extreme poverty is indeed a very laudable achievement. I think the main motivation, and the main reasons, were perhaps a sort of collective determination as well as the resolute focus by means of a very systematic effort over recent years to eradicate this poverty.
I heard, for example, government officials and from different levels of government were tasked with this poverty eradication effort. They're politically accountable and responsible for the success of poverty eradication efforts in their respective jurisdiction. So these are incentives for a lot of government officials to cooperate from what I learned with the various corporations, institutions and other organizations to eradicate this poverty.
Another reason was the willingness of those who used to live in extreme poverty to seek to eradicate themselves from the level of extreme poverty. I think in a lot of Western countries, the mentality depends on government largesse and government hangout is very strong; therefore the willingness to extricate yourself out of poverty is awfully absent from a lot of these countries, unfortunately.
China's lessons to the world in terms of poverty eradication are indeed the combination of the government's willingness, determination and focus and accountability of various officials. This combined with creative solutions by various corporations and organizations in conjunction with the willingness of those who live in poverty to pull themselves up. I think all three factors are important - government, various creative solutions by various organizations and corporations as well as those who used to live in poverty. They must all work together to make this happen.
China, being the world's most populated country and having achieved this total eradication extreme poverty, has of course made very significant achievement. We look forward to sharing some of China's lessons in this respect, especially with other developing countries.