Particularly noteworthy is the ‘Targeted Poverty Alleviation’ programme, which has been instrumental in changing the social landscape of rural China.


In the period of deep globalisation, even though humankind made huge strides in poverty alleviation, however, according to a recent World Bank report entitled “Poverty and Shared Prosperity 2020: Reversals of Fortune”, the world is not on track to meet the global goal of reducing extreme poverty to 3% by 2030 and warns that extreme poverty is expected to rise this year for the first time in over 20 years owing to the Covid-19 pandemic and global economic slump. With worsening of the economic situation around the globe, the report estimates that an additional 88 million people will live in extreme poverty in 2020. It says that the total number of people living in extreme poverty globally will be between 703 and 729 million, and some other estimates put them at one billion mark.

Confucius (551 BC-479 BC) once said that “In a country well governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of. In a country badly governed, wealth is something to be ashamed of.” In other words, good governance is directly proportional to the increase in standard of living of the population; needless to say, this results from moral responsibility of the government towards the well-being of its citizens. From this perspective, China’s poverty alleviation achievements have been impressive; especially in the last 40 years of reforms, China reduced the rate from 90% in 1981 to 0.5% in 2020. This amounts to alleviating around 850 million people from extreme poverty as per the World Bank’s spending benchmark. The poverty line set at $1.90 could be subject to interpretations, however, the larger picture of one-time China’s agrarian challenge is very different today. How did it happen and what lessons can we draw from the Chinese experience?

At the outset, these results have been achieved owing to the concerted efforts of the Chinese political leadership and people alike. The “Three Rurals” (agriculture, countryside and peasants) dominating the agenda of the rural reforms for decades are at the heart of poverty reduction in China. First of all, if the Household Responsibility System of the late 1970s revolutionised agriculture production and made China self-sufficient in food grain production, the land contracting system facilitated the mechanisation of farming and enabled peasants to engage in off-farm income opportunities in the 2000s. The mushrooming of cooperatives and e-commerce platforms that connected peasants’ products to markets and brought in new technologies and training programmes, catapulted peasants’ income to new levels. Rural healthcare system initiated in the mid 2000s could be another guarantor of the peasants’ income. Obviously, the peasant resistance in the late 1990s and early 2000s was also instrumental in reforming the agrarian sector in China. For example, in 1996-97 alone, 380,000 peasants participated in public protests across China, resulting in 7,400 fatalities. In 2005, a year before when China abolished agricultural taxes and levies altogether, peasants’ protests across China numbered 87,000.

Secondly, achievements cannot be separated from China’s development path and system with Chinese characteristics, in which the Communist Party plays a pivotal role. These are closely connected to the formulation and implementation of policies such as “The Five-sphere Integrated Plan” proposed in November 2012 at the 18th National Congress of the CPC aiming at development of socialism with Chinese characteristics and encompassing economic, political, cultural, social and ecological development; “Targeted poverty alleviation Strategy” pronounced in 2013; “Four-pronged Comprehensive Strategy” proposed in December 2014, which is aimed at comprehensively building a moderately prosperous society in all respects, expanding in-depth reform, promoting law-based governance, and enforcing strict Party self-governance; and identification of anti-poverty as one of three “tough battles” for 2017 to 2020 pronounced by President Xi Jinping. No wonder ever since he took over in 2012, about 100 million Chinese people have been uplifted from poverty.

Thirdly, particularly noteworthy is the “Targeted Poverty Alleviation” programme, which has been instrumental in changing the social landscape of rural China. Under this programme, China has set clear poverty reduction goals. Thanks to the great leap China has taken in building big data and e-governance, that a database of 128,000 poverty-stricken villages, 29.48 million poor households and 89.62 million impoverished people was created. This was made possible by sending a massive number of 775,000 officials to be stationed in villages for a period of 1 to 3 years, and Party secretaries at the provincial, municipal, county, township and village levels were held accountable for poverty alleviation. Between August 2015 and June 2016, an additional 2 million people were mobilised for the task. This is perhaps the second “back to the countryside” movement since the Cultural Revolution, with totally different goals. It was in the wake of such a movement and database building exercise that the “five-batch” policy through industrial development, relocation, compensation, education, and social security could be identified and implemented. For the purpose of relocation alone, the Chinese government earmarked a 250 billion yuan (38 billion USD) outlay for provinces and an additional 170.6 billion yuan (24.3 billion USD) was offered to poverty-stricken people in the form of microcredit.

Fourthly, as hinted above, it would not have been possible without hefty spending from the central government. For example, the Chinese government allocated 91 billion RMB (13 billion USD) to poverty alleviation funds for the year 2019 alone. The Chinese Development Bank pledged 400 billion RMB (57 billion USD) to fund poverty alleviation projects. At the same time, strict supervision over poverty alleviation funds has been the norm; no wonder more than 60,000 cases of corruption and misappropriation of funds have been discovered and thousands are being tried in the court of law.

Fifthly, China’s poverty alleviation has made huge contribution towards global poverty eradication goals. China lifting 850 million people out of poverty translates into alleviating more than 70% of the world ’s poor out of poverty. It has offered hope, especially to the developing and least developed countries with dense population that they too can dream of throwing off the yoke of poverty in a time-bound framework. China could be instrumental in building capacities in developing and least developed countries by sharing its experience. Having got rid of poverty at home, China, since 2015, has assisted other developing countries through 180 poverty reduction projects, 118 agricultural cooperation projects, 178 aid-for-trade projects, and 103 projects concerning ecological conservation and climate change. In September 2020, during the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Xi Jinping pledged to provide 50 million US dollars to the China-FAO South-South Cooperation Trust Fund that is supporting 80 projects in more than 30 developing countries. Moreover, the Belt and Road Initiative, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, BRICS New Development Bank etc., institutions are also instrumental in generating employment and providing funds for various sustainable development projects across the globe.

Finally, it is the free flow of goods, commodities, technologies and people under the ambit of globalization and multilateralism that has made poverty reduction possible in China and India. This was supported by Professor Kishore Mehbubani during the plenary session of the recently concluded “International Forum on Sharing Poverty Reduction Experience”, organized by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in collaboration with China Media Group, China Development Bank, and China International Poverty Reduction Centre on 15 December by pointing out statistics to prove his point. According to him, in 1992, China and India’s international trade stood at $166 and $45 billion respectively, which rose to $4.6 trillion and $949 billion respectively in 2018. The poverty rate in 1992 for China and India stood at 56.7% and 46% respectively, which in 2018 has been reduced to 0.5% and less than 7% respectively. Therefore, the kind of protectionist, retrenchment, populist and unilateral tendencies we have been witnessing of late will do more harm to the cause of poverty reduction than doing any good. Hope the year 2021 will augur well for world poverty reduction programs as well as international trade and multilateralism.

B.R. Deepak is Professor at the Center of Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.