China on Monday claimed extreme poverty has been eliminated nationwide, the capstone of a Communist Party policy to reduce inequities in society.
Nine Chinese counties, all in the mountainous province of Guizhou, have recently been certified as poverty-free, officials said. They were the last counties to make it over a threshold China has set based on a matrix of indicators including income, health, education, shelter and other human needs.
Poverty elimination by the end of this year is a key facet of a Communist Party goal to build what is termed a moderately prosperous society ahead of the party’s 100th birthday in 2021. President Xi Jinping has traveled the nation in recent years pledging attention to those at the lowest rungs of society, and has directed massive spending on schools, clinics, housing and cash handouts to meet the antipoverty target set in 2011.
Four decades of market-oriented economic policies in China had created a highly unequal society as cities got rich and rural parts of the country were left behind. Mr. Xi has described the unevenness as a risk to the party’s rule and has pursued policies to modernize the countryside, where the primary way to make money has long been to go work in a city.
Despite setbacks associated with the coronavirus pandemic, which in China like elsewhere disproportionately hit lower-income groups, Mr. Xi has repeated a determination that the poverty elimination goal would be achieved, making it a foregone conclusion that authorities would declare success before year-end. The People’s Daily earlier this year said poverty had plagued China for thousands of years so eliminating it can be considered “a Chinese miracle in human history.”
Speaking to the Group of 20 over the weekend and to a summit of Asia-Pacific leaders days earlier, Mr. Xi indicated the goal was within reach.
The actual moment passed with little fanfare. In state media, it was a local Guizhou official who made the milestone announcement. Late in its nationwide evening news broadcast Monday, China Central Television marked the occasion by panning across Guizhou images of newly built housing compounds, schools and bullet-train lines, along with workers in a textile plant and farmers on tractors transporting fruit.
The Communist Party has long touted reduction of poverty as the greatest achievement of market-oriented reform-and-opening policies adopted in the years following Mao Zedong’s death in 1976. It says 70% of the global reduction in poverty in recent decades has been in China—where it says some 700 million people in all have climbed out of poverty. International organizations also credit Beijing for vast improvement in personal livelihoods.
Still, some foreign economists say that Beijing has set its poverty standards too low, calling it a double standard that conflicts with evidence that China is a middle-income country rather than a poor one.
A report this year from former World Bank officials said that if a uniform standard of $5.50 a day in income, or around $2,000 a year, were applied, some 373 million or about 27% of the population would be considered in poverty. “Under these rates, poverty in China is still sizable and merits renewed efforts as well as further refinement of the country’s poverty policies, strategies and programs,” the report said.
The state-media reports Monday said the average net income of previously impoverished residents in the final nine Guizhou counties was now around $1,750 a year.
Matteo Marchisio, the East Asia head of the United Nations agency International Fund for Agricultural Development, said that quibbling about the exact rate of poverty runs the risk of missing “the big picture—that is to say that China has managed to raise the income of hundreds of millions of people above the poverty line in a very few years.”
The real issue, he said, is making the achievements sustainable by focusing on those hovering just above the poverty line, tackling systemic inequalities and setting policies to improve incomes that don’t require government money.