The Making of Poverty in Rural China: A Snapshot of 70 Years of CPC’s Rule
As the Communist Party of China (CPC) prepares to celebrate the 70 anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), this piece aims to offer a short analysis of the oft-forgotten struggles with extreme poverty in rural China. Few people would deny the fact that it was extreme poverty that paved the way for the Communist Party to gain popularity in China. And still fewer would deny the significant role the mass rural poor (peasants) played in helping it take the helm. In fact, the ‘great struggle’ brought the CPC to power was the struggle to end a century of humiliation by improving the economic and social lot of the Chinese people. Now in power, the Communist party had the task of fulfilling this historical mission. But then came the fateful idea of “Great Leap Forward”, which instead of changing China from a predominantly agrarian to a more modern and industrial society, greatly leaped the world’s largest country into unprecedented mass starvation and famine and social calamities. Yet, as if these disastrous consequences were not consequential enough, the Communist party engineered a decade-long revolution that needed not be: the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).
If the Great Leap Forward resulted in millions of deaths due to mass starvation, the Cultural Revolution helped wipe out what little there was remaining. It, therefore, seemed clear that the Communist party of China was failing to realize its raison d'être. If the disastrous consequences of these policies were truly an existential crisis for the people, they were even more so for the party if it were to retain power. Until the late 1970s, about 81% of China’s population lived in rural areas and 84% lived in abject poverty, which--if China’s long history teaches us anything--is a ripened Pandora's box for social and economic upheavals. Nonetheless, the reform and opening up that began in 1978 offered a way out as the slow and incremental process of reforms in rural areas started soon to pay dividends.
That is, when the Chinese leadership embarked on the path of transforming the economy through reform and opening up, the central aim, the driving objective was to change the appalling domestic miseries. According to Garnaut & co-, “At the beginning of China’s reform and opening-up, the most pronounced developmental challenge the country faced was the elimination of poverty”. Combating poverty has, therefore, been at the forefront and the overarching agenda of the economic transformation from the fateful central planning, collectivization, and import-substitution industrialization to wider reforms and liberalization. Interestingly, the process of restructuring and reforming the economy in China, though still incomplete and largely imbalanced, seems to have left rural China, where it started, far behind. In just 40 years, for instance, more than 700 million Chinese people have been lifted out of poverty and China is home of over 600 billionaires, a number higher than anywhere else in the world.
As a Report (2019) by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress makes it clear, there are daunting issues ahead. In its own words, “Despite the decisive progress in the fight against poverty, with the gradual advancement of poverty alleviation, the problem of deep poverty has become more prominent, and the difficulty of attacking has increased. There are still some practical difficulties and outstanding problems that cannot be ignored.” It also finds that, in 2018, “there were 16.6 million rural poor people in the country, about 400 poverty-stricken counties, and nearly 30,000 poverty-stricken villages.” This is definitely a significant figure even by China’s standards. In a 2015 address to the Global Poverty Reduction and Development Forum held in Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping declared China’s resolve to eliminate extreme poverty by 2020. Since then, the government has continuously devised innovative initiatives and multiplied policies and financial support to pull over 70 million people out of extreme economic hardships: “the Chinese government will enact more support policies to pull up the country's 70 million poor people above the poverty line by 2020.” To that end, “China will engage in concerted efforts with the government and the public to fight the hard battle against poverty.” Nevertheless, misappropriations and mismanagement of poverty alleviation funds are major challenges facing China and its President, with the fast approaching deadline of 2020. As the Report quite accurately points out, rather than improving the still lagging behind rural infrastructure (roads, clean water, schools, housing, electricity, etc.), it is not uncommon that poverty alleviation funds end up in corrupt deals or even in individual pockets. It also argues that even the idea of promoting local industries to facilitate poverty alleviation in a more sustainable manner is still lagging far behind.
Furthermore, “in various places… formalism, bureaucracy, falsification, irritability and war-weariness, and negative corruption still exist to varying degrees”, thus also adding that “the implementation of central poverty alleviation deployment [in many cases] focuses only on short-term effects, and insufficient attention is paid to post-poverty work”; that is, little attention is paid to the long term sustainability of the poverty alleviation efforts, which makes little sense since one cannot declare victory on poverty only for those same people to fall back after a year or two. Finally, there are concerns that the rush to declare victory over poverty usually comes at the expense of the environment and some other equally important social issues such as urban poverty, widening regional and income inequalities, land ‘grabbing’ from farmers, etc.Nonetheless, these issues are more likely to be confined to secondary importance as the CPC looks to emphasis more on its great achievements to present itself as the only and ultimate ‘savior’ the country could ever have.
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