China introduced a new system of minimum living standards in 1993. As implementation of the policy has been rolled out, there have been many challenges and much change to be faced. Wang Zhenyao is director of the Department of Disaster and Poverty Relief in the Ministry of Civil Affairs. He was interviewed by the weekly publication Sanlian Shenghuo Zhoukan.
Sanlian: How many people benefit from the minimum living standards guaranteed by the system?
Wang Zhenyao: Currently the number is 20 million but this is expected to increase by several millions. One reason for the increase is that central government is going to amend the method of determining income. In future it will be based only on actual income received rather than including payments due but not yet paid as at present.
For example, some enterprises have been eight months late in paying their employees’ salaries and 30 months in arrears is not unknown. Of course the money belongs to the employees but the fact of the matter is they may never get paid.
The new standard says that employees who’ve not been paid for six months will, after due investigation by the relevant civil affairs authorities, be considered as having lost the money. In Shanxi Province alone this will bring a further 300,000 people into the financial safety net. Implementing the updated central policy will also give as many as 4 million laid-offs new access to the system.
Sanlian: What are the changes to the relief policies for the urban poor?
Wang Zhenyao: There are more than 19 million laid-off workers at the minimum living standard. However those who are most in need of assistance, because they are disabled and have no income and no family to support them, number some 900,000, representing just 5 percent of the total.
Previously it was the units that carried the responsibility to help the poor. This was an inefficient system resulting in low incomes and over-staffing. Incomes may have been evenly distributed but individual workloads were not.
With the low economic standards that were the norm at the time, the phenomenon of poverty could go unnoticeable. But now the expectations of a market economy mean it’s time for society to take over the job of providing for the poor.
The Ministry of Civil Affairs started to implement the new system of safeguards in Shanghai in 1993 when bankruptcy led to hundreds of thousands of textile workers being laid-off.
Implementing the policy across the whole country was to prove no easy task and by 1997 there were still only some 200 cities with the measures fully in place. So following a working conference at Beidaihe, central government then urged that the measures should have been put in place right across the country by 1999.
Alongside the implementation of the policy, there have been calls for even further efforts to provide real support for those on minimum living standards. The next goal aimed at putting the finishing touches to the system is to make arrangements to provide poor urban families with access to such services as medical treatment, education and housing.
Sanlian: How has implementation of the minimum living standards policy been pursued?
Wang Zhenyao: We asked the various departments to give this their very best efforts. By June 2002 local governments generally had the support mechanisms in place.
The Ministry of Civil Affairs has also established a database. This holds such details as the name and ID number of the head of each family together with contact details.
(China.org.cn, translated by Li Xiao, February 6, 2003)