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On the 25th of February 2021, President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) announced that China had achieved an outright victory in eliminating absolute poverty in the country by lifting 770 million people out of poverty in the past 40 years. It was also stated that over 70 percent of the total global reduction in absolute poverty was attributed to Chinese efforts, for the same time frame.  

Nevertheless, there has been plenty of scepticism from western media regarding these achievements, especially concerning potential differences between what the World Bank and the PRC consider to be absolute poverty. With this article, our aim will be to analyse the veracity of these claims by examining the statistics concerning China’s poverty alleviation efforts, while also assessing what policy measures were adopted to reduce abject poverty. 

What does the PRC consider to be poverty? Concerning China’s poverty line, there have been three different standards employed by the Chinese government to characterise poverty: the 1978, the 2008 and the 2010 ones, the latter being 2300 yuan per person per year, meaning 6,3 yuan ($0,94) per day. For the World Bank, the most recent standard for poverty sits at $1,90 per day (at 2011 Purchasing Power Parity (PPP)). Unfortunately, for the untrained eye and sensational media, this glaring 1 dollar difference implies that it exists a discrepancy in criteria between the two institutions. However, this thought process has a crucial failure: it fails to put China’s poverty line value in 2011 PPP prices. 

Figure 1 – China’s 2010 poverty line at constant prices

From the graph above, it can be observed that China’s poverty line value is not a constant 2300 yuan for each year, but rather one that has adapted to price changes, with a poverty value of 2536 yuan per year, equivalent to 6,95 yuan per day, for 2011. According to the 2011 PPP, 1$ would be equivalent to 3,52 yuan, meaning that China’s poverty line would be approximately 2,00$ day (2011 PPP), which is in fact a higher value than the World Bank’s. 

Figure 2 – China’s Population living in poverty throughout the years (2010 standard) 

Regarding the second claim made, the data indicates that it was in fact in China where most poverty alleviation occurred: in the 1980–2018 timeframe, the 750 million Chinese who were lifted out of poverty represent approximately 63% of the total change in the poverty population, which went from 1926 million people in 1980 to 698,4 in 2010 (at the $1,90 Standard). 

One might still think that the 1,90$ standard is still too unambitious for a person to be considered lifted out of absolute poverty, because even if an individual does earn this minimum amount of money, he/she might still not have access to clean water or proper medical care. In fact, while the World Bank claims that in 2018 there were around 700 million people living in extreme poverty, the UN reported a whopping 1,5 billion people as being food insecure and unable to conduct normal human activity. 

Two assurances and three guarantees

Consequently, the Chinese government, when establishing the 2010 poverty line, deemed essential to include in the poverty alleviation objectives the “two assurances and three guarantees”: the two assurances, also called the two no worries, being adequate access to proper food and clothing, which would be assured if the 1,90$ benchmark was to be achieved, whereas the three guarantees are the following ones: 

The access to compulsory education, which was boosted by investing in new public-school facilities in poorer regions, especially for pre-school children who lack the independence to go to distant schools on their own. In addition, the PRC government established a subsidy program where families only gained access to extra income if their children attended compulsory schooling.  

The access to basic medical care, which, once again, was boosted by investing in new health care facilities and in the number of medical personnel employed by the state. For remote impoverished villages, a program was created where poor families were ensured at least a visit from a state physician each month.  

Figure 3 – Chinese Government’s investment in Poverty alleviation measures 

Finally, the access to secure housing, as most of the previously impoverished counties, in this past decade, were in mountainous regions, such as the Sichuan or Yunnan provinces, which have limited potential for economic growth. These citizens’ decrepit homes, which lacked access to essential amenities, combined with their low incomes derived from old-fashioned agricultural practices, possessed a significant challenge to their lives’ improvement. Thus, the Chinese government subsidised the construction of new houses where the access to clean water and electricity was assured in areas with less arduous conditions, allowing these citizens to relocate to them for free. 

Figure 4 – Newly built relocation homes for Sichuan’s impoverished families

The Job-Placement

Evidently, when establishing these new communities, the necessity to create new job opportunities for the relocated citizens arose. For those that were re-established in different rural areas, they were able to maintain their agricultural practices, albeit with renewed tools and machinery funded by local governments. For those that were moved into urban areas, most were able to find new jobs in the secondary sector, many of which were propelled by the e-commerce sector.

The prevalence of e-commerce in China means that it has never been so easy for local firms to ship their products to other parts of China, which increases their potential consumer pool and allows for remote regions to have more profitable firms. As such, local governments were able to cooperate with the private sector in establishing new factories to employ these relocated citizens. 

This job-placement example demonstrates what has been a continuous process in Chinese society for the past 40 years: the organised cooperation between the government/public sector and private enterprises. As a market-socialist nation, China’s economy is organized in a considerably different way than Western Countries’: if not for the prevalence of Public State Enterprises in the economy, then the regulatory hand of the Chinese government vastly outweighs the West’s, who more often adopts a laisse-faire style approach to solving economic problems. 

Nonetheless, despite running these government projects, China’s debt-to-GDP ratio has remained at relatively low levels, although it has recently risen, mainly due to COVID19. Likewise, its GDP growth rate has remained positive throughout this period, meaning that these types of projects are not some sort of far-fetched utopian idea, but rather they are feasible projects that tackle poverty problems at their core

Figure 5 – China’s real GDP per capita (at 2017 dollars PPP)  

China as an example to follow 

In conclusion, it is vital for policymakers, especially those working in the field of development economics, to understand how China’s implemented policies could be adopted in other parts of the world, because, as it stands, it was in China where most progress has occurred. Furthermore, as the UN 2030 goal is to eliminate absolute poverty, the effective way to achieve it will surely involve getting a better grasp on past data and policy decisions guiding the world towards a better future. 

Sources: The World Bank, National Bureau of Statistics of China, The Guardian, Beijing Review, BBC, CGTN, Council Pacific Affairs, Xinhua News Agency 

André Rodrigues

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