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Poverty Remains the Arch Enemy in China

Dec 24, 2015

During the last weekend of of November, in a hotel near Chang’an Boulevard in central Beijing, an important closed-door meeting of China’s Communist Party (CPC) Central Committee took place. The General Secretary of the CPC and also the President of the country, Xi Jinping, was joined by all his colleagues in the Standing Committee of the Politburo at the podium. The meeting hall was filled with top officials from all the provinces, major cities and central government ministries. I myself and my colleagues from the National People’s Congress also attended the meeting. The theme of this important meeting was how to meet China’s poverty relief target in the coming years.

The CPC has committed itself to the goal of reaching a “Xiao Kang” — or “moderately prosperous society” for China by the centennial anniversary of the founding of the CPC that will be marked in 2020. The aim is to make sure that the remaining families still in poverty also step into the well-off society together with the rest of the nation. In President Xi Jinping’s words, “No one should be left behind”.

No one should be left behind

The Chinese phrase of “Xiao Kang” came from the 3000 year old poem, the Book of Songs. It refers to an ideal state of stability and prosperity as described by Confucius where “the aged are cared for; the adults are given full play in their jobs and children are well-nourished and educated.” This phrase was used by Deng Xiaoping in December, 1979 when he explained China’s phased development objectives to some Japanese guests. China’s per capita GDP at that time was only $270. Over the last three decades, China has worked towards boosting per capita income as its highest objective. Thanks to fast growth, by 2014 per capita GDP has risen to $7,575.

However, with the Chinese poverty line defined at $360 in annual income, there are still 70.17 million people living below that threshold — a number larger than Great Britain’s total population. It should also be noted that the Chinese poverty line is way lower than the Western standard. If we follow the World Bank standard of $1.9 per day, the poverty population in China would exceed 200 million.

So the biggest obstacle now standing between us and the “Xiao Kang” target is the remaining poverty. In other words, we have to get over 10 million people out of poverty each year in the next five years.

President Xi spoke to the meeting about the absolute necessity of the Party completing that final mile of China’s fight against poverty. He hopes that the Party can mobilize the whole society “to make concerted efforts to achieve this goal.” He shared with us his stories from working in the countryside and at different levels of local governments, and how he always felt strong about the responsibility to get rid of poverty and help people to achieve their dream for better lives. Since Xi became the president, his inspection trips have covered most of China’s impoverished regions. What he saw made him all the more determined to tackle this issue. Premier Li Keqiang spoke too along the same lines. The message was clear to all of us that poverty removal is one of the most important priorities for the country in the next five years.

Working Poor, Safety Net

After the speeches, the meeting broke into sub-group discussions. The one I attended included leaders not only from coastal provinces like Fujian but also poorer western regions like Ningxia. The discussions were and sometimes heated. There are no differences about the general target. But many questions were raised and suggestions were offered about achieving the target, such as how to undertake detailed surveys and how to tailor individual plans to various local conditions. For example, households with people of working age an ability should be helped to find productive employment in order to boost income. For those who can no longer work, the government has to take over with a safety net and other measures. An estimated 10 million poverty-stricken people living in harsh environments, some suggested, should be relocated. Other pointed out the need to enhance health insurance so people can be kept from falling back to poverty due to serious illness in the family. A paramount measure, it was agreed, is to invest more in education to disrupt the pattern of poverty being passed down between generations.

Provincial leaders are held accountable to tackle poverty

Even with specific plans, the poverty-relief effort faces considerable challenges. For instance, how can we make sure that no relief funds are embezzled or wasted? How can we keep local governments from meeting the target by fraudulent reporting? How can we make poverty relief is sustainable and not a one-off effort? Also, in fragile environments such as Tibet, how can we balance poverty eradication efforts with environmental protection?

The challenges in front of us are both diverse and complicated. It is fair to say that poverty remains the principal enemy for China, and every second counts in fighting its scourge. To meet the target on poverty alleviation, 22 heads of provinces and cities located in western China have signed letters of responsibility with the central government, which will hold them accountable if their performance falls short.

Some American friends often worry that China may jockey for global power with the U.S. and that China wants to squeeze the U.S. out of Asia. My observation is that the outside world tends to look at China as if it is another traditional power and thus loses sight of what is really going on inside China. They often overestimate China’s achievements and underestimate its challenges. Indeed, China’s economy has scaled up, but the quality of its growth is still far behind. According to IMF, for example, the per capita GDP of China is only 1/7 of that of the U.S. It will take over 50 years to fill the gap between the two.

While China is home to 22 per cent of world’s population, it only has an only 2 per cent share of global spending on health care in comparison with the 13.6 per cent enjoyed by the U.S. Among the 10 world-class universities, eight are in the U.S. Beijing University, the best in China, ranks only 39th.

China still has a long way to go. Certainly, the Chinese people desire a strong China with powerful armed forces capable of safeguarding the country and securing peace. But the uppermost imperative is for China to have a peaceful and stable external environment so we can attend to our own monumental challenges. When looking at China’s role today in the world order, this entire picture must be taken into account.

Copyright: The World Post

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