Despite the visible impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the worst floods on record, China’s leadership has remained bullish on the claim that it was on track to abolish absolute poverty by 2020.
Absolute poverty is measured by the number of those living under a certain income level dubbed the poverty line—that line being below 2,300 yuan per year at 2010 prices (less than a dollar a day).
Now, the country’s state-run news channel CGTN has claimed that the goal has been met, as Chinese authorities removed the last districts from the “poverty list”. The claim is that China has “eliminated” absolute poverty a month before its self-imposed deadline, after nine counties in the impoverished district of Guizhou were removed from the poverty list.
Earlier, counties from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Yunnan Province, Sichuan Province and Gansu Province were removed from this list. “In the past seven years, 10 million people were lifted out of penury in China on average every year,” the CGTN report notes.
Measurements of poverty are often contested for their accuracy. In 2015, the World Bank raised its poverty line to $1.90 a day. Even by this new line, however, Dr Tan Weiping, Deputy director of the International Poverty Reduction Center in China wrote that “from 1981 to 2013, China lifted 850 million people out of poverty, with the percentage of people living in extreme poverty falling from 88 per cent to 1.85 per cent.”
But China’s policies have also been criticised for shifting the goalposts in terms of how it deals with poverty.
In 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping launched the ‘Targeted Poverty Alleviation Strategy’, a year after setting the national goal of eliminating absolute poverty by the end of 2020. China appeared on track to make this promise, however, COVID-19 led to the country’s GDP shrinking in the first quarter for the first time in four decades.
A 2019 study observed how China has used resettlement as a tool for poverty alleviation, moving millions from poorer rural areas to high-density urban settlements. The Financial Times has also reported on how the government has taken to resettling citizens from the poorest or most deprived provinces to more urban areas—such as in the case of the Cliff Village. This process may end up being seen as more of an administrative exercise than one reflected in actual increases in living standards.
As China has developed economically, income inequality has also skyrocketed. In May, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said that over 600 million people have a monthly income of less than 1,600 yuan ($140), which he said was not enough to afford an apartment in a Chinese city. However, he said that five million people were living below the official poverty line, and asserted the government's committment to reducing absolute poverty to zero by the end of the year despite the challenge posed by COVID-19 and resultant unemployment.
Addressing economic inequality will be the next challenge for China, now that the hurdle of overcoming absolute poverty is officially deemed overcome by the state.