China’s 2020 Anti-Poverty Project: A Shift from Rural to Urban

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SEATTLE — The People’s Republic of China is the world’s second-largest economy, home to a booming middle class and over 100 Fortune 500 companies. Its crown jewels, Beijing and Shanghai, shimmer with the lights of countless high-rise hotels and financial offices. Even so, 43 million citizens still live under the national poverty line in the country’s rural underbelly. President Xi Jinping reiterated in October 2017 that China’s 2020 anti-poverty project remained a core agenda item of his administration’s realization of the Chinese Dream, a promise of higher living standards.

China’s 2020 Anti-Poverty Project Looks to Build on Past Accomplishments

The government has been largely successful thus far in its previous attempts to improve living conditions. The number of people living below the international poverty line ($1.90) has dropped from approximately 750 million in 1990 to less than a tenth of that in 2014. With the country’s economic growth benefitting both lower and middle-income citizens, life expectancy at birth has soared. Economic expansion and the liberalization of the Chinese market are believed to have been the primary catalysts of this success.

Yet with GDP growth dropping to the single digits in the last decade, poverty has become more and more difficult to definitively resolve. China can no longer rely on building coal factories and chemical plants to supply much-needed jobs. It finds itself fighting on two fronts as a signatory of the Paris Climate Accords and its declaration of war against pollution in 2014. The anti-pollution initiative, though wildly successful in saving the lives of many living in China’s chemical-polluted industrial zones, is not designed to lift them out of poverty.

Relocation and Urbanization Recent Trends in China’s Poverty Alleviation Efforts

While the country continues its forays into clean energy, government intervention and social incentives have found support in the party’s highest ranks as a way to combat poverty. China’s 2020 anti-poverty project is a government initiative largely characterized by the physical relocation of millions of rural denizens to urban communities using these tactics. Municipalities in China have long been evaluated on success in economic and social terms, with the practice originating in the Great Leap Forward during the late 1950s. Poverty alleviation has emerged as a new metric by which they can be judged.

Eager to rise in the rankings, local party officials have relocated many of their district’s rural constituents to massive unused urban hubs in an effort to improve their poverty alleviation index scores. Their rationale: urban equals wealthy. Urbanization is often associated with the reduction of poverty due to the lower unemployment rates and higher GDP per capita of China’s most successful cities compared to its countryside.

However, the inhabitants of these complexes of newly-constructed apartment blocks, complete with shopping centers and playgrounds, must confront major drawbacks. Oftentimes short-lived government contract jobs are the only employment they can find. Farming, once an unprofitable but steady source of income, is no longer a realistic option. Essential facilities like hospitals and schools are usually far away, and if they are in close proximity, the quality almost always suffers. The advantages of urban life are harder to come by these cities, as the towns sit at the bottom rung of China’s city categorization hierarchy. Those at the top, such as Shanghai and Beijing, receive the most government funding and host the best public facilities. 

The Importance of Moving Beyond Basic Needs to Aid the Impoverished

Recently-moved rural citizens are not the sole victims of poor location. The populations of the aforementioned two cities are burgeoning with an influx of migrant workers who come for the well-funded social services large cities are known for. Often pushed to the urban rim and forced to work in unappealing sanitary jobs, these migrants are viewed by governing officials as a weight that drags down average living standards. The frequent razings of outskirt infrastructure in the name of safety have evicted thousands of laborers, who are then relocated to cities that have little access to the very amenities the migrants initially sought by moving.

For China’s 2020 anti-poverty project to be a complete success, it will need to focus more on the multi-faceted nature of poverty. Providing basic human needs such as clean water, sustainable food and proper shelter is important but is not the cure for poverty on its own. China’s lack of job mobility and universally sufficient social services ironically cause many of its smaller municipalities, designed to eradicate poverty, to end up reinforcing it. 

Many government officials have recognized the cost and narrow focus of the program; Liu Yongfu, head of the state-sponsored Leading Group of Poverty Alleviation and Development, acknowledged this but told Reuters that the government’s current focus was “First we need to win this battle, resolve the current problems.”

While past policies have raised most of the country’s poor out of their dire straits, time (and money wisely spent) will tell if China’s 2020 anti-poverty project lives up to the vision of Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream.

– Alex Qi
Photo: Flickr

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Alex Qi

Alex writes for The Borgen Project from Washington, D.C. He is interested in the contrast of government policy (both foreign and domestic) in the United States and China.

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