It was back in 1978 that China embarked on the first steps in the policies of economic reform and opening up which were to prove so very successful. In that year, reform began to be piloted in the rural economy and would later be extended into full-scale nationwide measures.
The 1978 statistics showed China to have some 250 million citizens living in poverty and short of food and clothing at that time. This was about 31 percent of the total rural population.
Inspired by the new opportunities brought through the reforms, the peasants worked hard to raise themselves out of poverty. As early as the end of 1985 the number in poverty had already been halved.
In 1986 the government adopted a new approach of "poverty reduction through development projects," this placed the emphasis firmly on fostering self-reliance and sustainable development rather than on relief handouts.
By 1993, the number of people living in poverty had dropped to the 30 million mark for the first time.
In 1994 China set itself new challenges in the area of poverty reduction by pushing the definition of the poverty line up to an annual income of 625 yuan (about US$75). This had the effect of boosting the numbers back up to 80 million.
There followed concerted efforts across the nation backed by annual investments of the order of 10 to 20 billion yuan. By the beginning of the new century the number was once again at the 30 million mark. Could there be some significance in the number, perhaps some sort of barrier being encountered, for now there are signs that the pace of poverty reduction is slowing significantly in the new century?
A total of 45 million people shook off their poverty from 1986 to 1993 representing an annual poverty reduction rate of 6.42 million over the period. From 1994 to 2000, the number was 48 million at a rate of 7 million people per year. But this has slumped to 1 million per year since 2001 and only 3 million have been helped out of poverty from 2001-2003.
Xue Yong, a history PHD candidate at Yale University, draws a parallel between poverty issues and myopia. False myopia is easily enough acquired by too much close reading work but is relatively easy to deal with when compared with true myopia.
In the decade long Cultural Revolution, Chinese peasants were required to work the land within the constraints of a system of farming collectives. Xue’s view is that 250 million people were then in a sort of false poverty brought on by inappropriate guidelines and policies. Given sufficient determination and hard work coupled with new policies of economic reform this could be relatively easily reversed.
But just like true myopia, it is much harder to successfully address true poverty.
Xue sees true poverty as affecting disadvantaged groups like the old, the handicapped and severely sick people who are unable to work. It is also evident in areas where the land is unproductive due to geographical or climatic factors or which are subject to natural disasters such as flooding. In such cases he suggests that “poverty reduction through development” may not be a viable approach.
He suggests that what is required to meet the needs of the old, the handicapped and severely-sick people is a basic social security mechanism to provide state funds to take care of their minimum living requirements. Some disadvantaged rural residents just cannot work their way out of poverty and have no alternative but to rely on state relief and on society as a whole.
Though the government has done much to provide large-scale resettlement projects to help those living in particularly harsh and unfavorable environments, more still remains to be done.
Xue also suggests another prudent approach which lies in first providing training to improve the employment skills of young people in the countryside, and then encouraging them to find work in cities. Once they have established their new roots in the cities, they would eventually be joined there by their families. He said, “This may not offer a quick fix but would be effective in the long run.”
The global anti-poverty organizations have been revising their slogans from eliminating poverty to reducing poverty, which may well reflect their new understanding of poverty issues.
According to the China Village Poverty Reduction and Development Plan (2001 - 2010), China's overall poverty reduction goals for this period are to:
· help those with insufficient food and clothing reach a minimum acceptable standard of living as soon as possible.
· further improve the production capabilities, living conditions and quality of life of those in poverty and strengthen their ability to help themselves
· enhance infrastructure facilities in poverty-ridden villages and improve the ecological environment
· improve social, economic and cultural conditions to provide a better-off way of life.
(China.org.cn by Xu Zhiquan, June 14, 2004)