A two-decade on-the-ground observation.
China’s Poverty alleviation is a strange dichotomy, there probably isn’t a person in the developed world who doesn’t know that 800 million Chinese people have been lifted out of poverty but at the same time, it’s not well-known how it came about.
Improved infrastructure and modern accommodation in rural China
Because of this, some people question the reality of it, I’ve heard people say that China lowered the definition of poverty and therefore lifted millions out of it but anyone who has witnessed the changes to regions such as Ningxia and Guangxi or provinces such as Yunnan, Gansu or Guizhou over the last 10 years, would have no questions. Sealed roads now lead into every village in China. Mud huts and cave dwellings have been replaced by modern living accommodation. Old wooden structures serving as restaurants and stores are now air-conditioned, windowed concrete and brick buildings. Remote villages which had little to offer but the beautiful environments in which they exist, now have guest houses, restaurants and even bars and coffee shops for city visitors to part with their money.
Bankers and economists ask: is it sustainable, or is it cost effective? And the answer to these questions, in some respects, might be no, but to China, its government and its people the answer is clearly yes, because it is important to the people, it will be sustained; no matter what the cost.
Cost is a relative thing. To a World Bank executive, one of whom did question the sustainability, of course it isn’t. The return on investment, if indeed there ever is one, might be years away, the roads to mountain villages or trainlines to rural town may take a lifetime to repay themselves, perhaps they never will, but China has made those investments anyway and the reasoning is valid.
The international banker could use that income and make a few percentage points. The Chinese farmer, on the other hand, during the same period, might have made enough money to buy a machine to make his work easier, send his child to university and build a three-bedroom house. He might also have made enough money to reach the threshold of tax payments and so, the country will start to get a small return on its investment. But this farmer isn’t alone, he is one of millions of rural residents now experiencing benefits.
Investing in a higher standard of living for ordinary citizens rather than in short-term profits for investors
What the boardrooms of finance capitals around the world fail to grasp is that Poverty Alleviation isn’t about cost-effectiveness or return on Investment, it’s about people, and how to give them a better life.
Poverty Alleviation isn’t one scheme or one program, it certainly isn’t a charity either. It’s a wide-ranging strategy, it might even be called a philosophy; to do the best that can be done with the resources available. Every region has different needs. A mountain in Fujian might be perfect for growing tea, hills in Guangxi may be perfect for cultivating rice while a desert in Xinjiang can be turned into an oasis resort. What’s important is that China is finding out what’s best for the region and making resources available in the form of skills, expertise and materials to make it happen.
A great example is can be found in the villages of Long Sheng about 100 kilometres north of Guilin in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. World famous now for its mountainous rice terraces.
For millennia, local farmers, mostly Dong, Miao, Zhuang or Yao people, four of China’s 56 ethnicities, eked out a subsistence living by growing rice in small fields terraced out of the mountain, it’s backbreaking, relentless work.
Use of modern machinery to increase productivity in a well-preserved traditional habitat
Now it’s different, it’s still hard work, rice is still grown in these incredible terraces but much of the work is done by machine. The machines are not bought or paid for by the sale of rice, there wouldn’t be enough money for that. The Chinese government has built a road into and through the region, to enter, if you are not a resident of the region, you pay an entry fee of 60 RMB. That’s our fee to visit one of the most beautiful and spectacular regions of Southern China.
The income from the entry fee is shared between the local administrators and the regional government. Part of it will be used to pay for the infrastructure needed and part to improve the lives of the people, this is where the money for machinery comes from. But, for us visitors, it gets better. If you want to visit the region for longer than a day you can now stay in one of the newly constructed guesthouses. Each of them is built in exactly the same style and method as 100 or 1000 years ago. No glue, bricks or nails are used, the buildings are constructed of wood which is provided by the government from sustainable forests. The skills needed to build are handed down locally, taught to the younger generation, and villagers are encouraged to use local labourers for all construction. Rocks and stones to make the foundations of the buildings are sourced from the rivers, even the roofing tiles are made in a local kiln that has been in operation for generations.
The Guest houses are where poverty alleviation becomes interesting. As the officials were exploring options, it was clear there was nowhere for visitors to stay, so some people were asked if they would give up parts of their homes as bed and breakfast rooms. Those that agreed were trained in hospitality, free of charge, parts of their homes were fitted out as guest rooms with private bathrooms and modern, western style furniture, also free of charge. Room fees, paid by guests to the home, are shared for the first 5 years. 33% goes to the owner of the home, 33% goes to the company that fitted out the rooms and 33% goes to the local government to cover (and recover) their costs. After five years, 100% of the income, less personal tax, will go to the homeowner.
The farmers there are still farmers but they have another job description now; they are custodians of a living museum. Their farming life is easier, their family life is richer and their environment has improved. Money is being made, money is being saved and money is being invested in a region that was, until recent years, nothing more than a subsistence farming environment, albeit a beautiful one.
I’ve been lucky enough to experience this with several trips to Guangxi, the first in 2005 when I spent days in villages meeting people who got water from a river or a well and shared their earthen home with chickens, eating dinner by the light of a single electric bulb. Not anymore!
Poverty Alleviation is Nationwide
Within a few years, extreme poverty disappeared in China’s poorest regions
In 2014, I travelled through some of the poorest regions of China, Ningxia, Gansu and Xinjiang. On a long cycle ride, I saw extreme poverty; I saw people living in caves and wooden constructions we can hardly call houses. I saw goods taken to market by donkey carts. Then in 2019, I travelled through the same regions, again by bicycle, and saw in just 5 years, there were no more donkeys, many people had cars, motorbike trailers and there were shopping centres with car parks, there were new apartment buildings. There is still evidence of how people used to live, but that evidence is slowly disappearing as poverty is replaced by moderate prosperity.
There are still many poor people, but they are now fed, clothed and housed.
There is still a great deal of work to be done, there are still many poor people in China, but none of them are so poor they can’t eat, clothe, house themselves or see their children get an education. The poverty of previous generations was replaced, 10 or 15 years ago, by hope and that hope has now been realised.
It’s not easy to imagine 800 million people, numbers such as this become mind-numbing statistics but these are real people with real lives and real feelings. What’s more, they are more than the combined population of USA (335m) and the European Union (448m), let’s repeat that because it’s such an incredible statistic it might not quite sink in:
the number of people lifted out of extreme poverty in China is greater than the entire population of the European Union and the United States combined.
In China, poverty reduction is not a paper tiger
Don’t let anyone tell you Poverty Alleviation isn’t a modern miracle, don’t believe anyone who tells you China didn’t do anything special, don’t be misled into thinking this was a paper exercise to propagandise the world into thinking China is something it is not. The evidence is clear; this has been, and continues to be, the greatest social movement in world history and, whether we like it or not, it was done by the Communist Party of China for the People of China.