China moves to reduce rural poverty

At the first-ever China Poverty Eradication Award ceremony on Oct. 17 — the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty — China announced with great pride that the poor population in the country’s rural areas had decreased to 29 million from 250 million in 1978. Now, the government said, only about 3 percent of rural people are impoverished, compared to 30.7 percent in 1978. China’s total population is 1.3 billion.

However, as the newspaper People’s Daily points out in its account of a quarter century of anti-poverty achievements, much remains to be done. If the current standard for extreme poverty — an annual income of less than 625 yuan ($75) — is raised by just $24, the number of impoverished Chinese would rise to 90 million.

In the mid-1980s, a government-sponsored, large-scale poverty relief project was organized throughout the country. A “National Program for Poverty Relief” initiated in 1994 was followed in 2001 by the “Development Outline for Village Poverty Relief 2001-2010.”

The national government’s allocation of special poverty relief funds has grown to about $1.5 billion a year from $121 million in 1980, for a total allocation of nearly $13.9 billion. Last year, local governments also put up some $363 million for the campaign.

In recent years the drive to end rural poverty has received renewed impetus as emphasis by the Communist Party and the government has shifted from the earlier all-out effort to develop eastern China to building up the western and northeastern regions. The stated goal of the effort is “to build a well-off society in an all-round way” by 2020. In recent years 15 east coast cities have aided 11 western provinces and regions with financial support and cooperative projects. Non-governmental organizations are increasingly being encouraged to join in the effort.

At the Oct. 17 ceremony, Vice Premier Hui Liangyu urged all citizens to participate in the nationwide government-led poverty relief programs, and pledged that the government will continue to guide, encourage and support both individuals and organizations that join the campaign.

Among the 18 institutions and individuals recognized at the ceremony were activities like Project Hope to help poor children attend primary school, Project Happiness to help poor mothers, Project Spring Bud to help girls who have dropped out of school, and The Glorious Cause, to help private businesses in underdeveloped areas. Also recognized were 90-year-old Bai Fangli, who used his pension and the money he earned riding a pedicab to provide financial aid to poor university students, and a Zhejiang Province businessman who donated $600,000 to the project.

Among the anti-poverty programs’ achievements:

• Between 1986 and 2003, almost 4.5 million acres of farmland was added, and almost 75 million people gained access to clean drinking water. By 2003, almost 83 percent of villages in poor areas had access to roads, electricity, telephone, and radio and television broadcasts.

• School conditions in poor rural areas are much better, and the dropout rate among school-age children has been cut to 7.8 percent.

• Agricultural training classes have helped poor farmers learn to grow traditional crops more productively, and to switch to new, more economically productive crops. Poorly educated farmers are helped through innovative methods, such as incorporating crop growing techniques into local folk songs and illustrating such techniques through cartoons.

Among regions receiving special attention have been the southwestern province of Yunnan, where the provincial government invested close to $363 million in anti-poverty projects last year, helping 400,000 poor people obtain food and housing. However, despite the efforts of the central and provincial governments, Yunnan is still home to the largest poor population in China, because of unfavorable geographical conditions as well as slow economic development. Last year the province set a goal to invest another $544 million to help resettle half a million people living in below-subsistence conditions within five years.

Central and local governments have also prioritized Tibet, allocating over $36 million to energy, water conservancy, road construction and drinking water projects that benefited tens of thousands of Tibetans. Going beyond basic food and clothing, programs are now focusing on social and economic development in agricultural and pastoral areas as well as overall improvements in living standards.

The author can be reached at mbechtel@pww.org.