Preventing a return to poverty is China's next big challenge

By Thomas Scott-Bell
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China Focus, March 5, 2021
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An aerial view of a residential community in Luotuowan village in Fuping county, Hebei province, on Aug 7, 2019. [Photo/Xinhua]

On November 23 last year, China officially declared it had completely eradicated absolute poverty in its rural areas. But four-months on, how is the government set to ensure that absolute poverty is truly gone for good?

In the small village of Shangwopu in north east China, the farmer Yun Qi and fellow villagers in the area were overcome by extreme poverty just a few years ago. Houses were poorly built and lacking in basic amenities, while the average income for the village stood at a little over $450 (3,000 RMB) per capita. Life was incredibly tough.

"We used to be a low-income family, we had no money," Yun said. "All the money I used to earn went to the doctor as my wife has rheumatoid arthritis and it was impossible to buy anything nice."

Yet in a short amount of time Yun's village has been completely transformed. Through China's extensive poverty alleviation drive, Yun now lives in a brand-new house full of modern amenities such as running water, gas hobs and internet connection. Rubbish collection, access to public transport and medical care are all services Yun and his neighbours can now enjoy, while the village's average annual income has skyrocketed to $2,785 (18,000 RMB), giving Yun and his community a vastly more comfortable life.

"Ever since the national policy was introduced, living conditions have gotten better," Yun said. "My income is pretty good, my wife's disease has also been taken care of because we now have a Medicare card that covers chronical diseases, and that saves us a lot of money. Things are much better now."

Yun's story is just one of 850 million that that have been told over the past four decades, each one chronicling the difficult but dramatic impact China's victory against poverty has brought to their communities.

But with the policy now achieved, the new questions are how China plans to protect people like Yun from falling back into the difficult lives that they've only just left behind.

Slipping back into poverty?

The inconvenient truth is that in many countries, escaping from poverty is not always a one-way trip. In Spain, for example, a study in 2019 showed that a third of households who do manage to leave poverty return to it just 12-months later. In Kenya, rural communities' have experienced similar problems, with a major study finding that of the 50 percent of households who had escaped poverty in 2000, 39 percent had returned to it within a decade.

The World Bank that provides loans and grants to the governments of low- and middle-income countries, has continuously warned of the challenges governments face in ensuring communities do not return to poverty, cautioning that most poor communities are "just an emergency away from the poverty line".

Most recently, that emergency has come in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic, one that according to the World Bank has had a severe and detrimental effect on global poverty alleviation efforts. According to their latest estimates, between 88 million to 115 million people were placed into extreme poverty last year as a result of COVID-19, while that total is expected to rise to as many as 150 million by the end of this year.

Rural revitalization to help rural communities grow

Despite COVID-19 no longer spreading within the country, the World Bank's warning and the experience of other countries highlight the potential challenges Chinese officials face in keeping rural areas out of poverty.

To ensure such a situation does not occur, government officials are set to implement rural revitalization – a policy first announced during the 19th CPC Conference in 2017 – which aims to not only guarantee rural communities' new found status, but also to provide them with a more promising future.

Headed by the National Rural Revitalization Bureau, which will act as a hub for research and strategy development, rural revitalization at its core is a safety net for rural areas.

It has been designed on the one hand to ensure "early detection, early intervention, and early assistance" for areas that have recently come out of poverty – especially the 9.6 million people who have been relocated from inhospitable areas – while at the same time creating a pleasant living environment, improving living standards and developing rural businesses for those who live there.

The latter in particular has been highlighted as "key to rural revitalisation", and featured heavily in China's "No.1 Central Document" – the first policy document released by China's central authorities every year. Establishing businesses related to tourism and the selling of agricultural products through e-commerce platforms are set to be given greater support, having previously worked well in alleviating people out of poverty.

They are expected to go hand-in-hand with further infrastructure projects such as the "Last Kilometre" initiative, which will help plug the holes found in some rural areas' storage, cold-chain logistic and delivery procedures, and help facilitate greater commerce between villages and towns.

Other services are also expected to improve, according to China's Minister for Agriculture and Rural Affairs Tang Renjian, such as education, medical care, elderly care, social insurance, rural toilets and sewage treatment – things that rural people genuinely care about.

Looking forward not back

In short, rural revitalization is designed to ensure the work of the last forty-years is not undone, and to close the gap between communities like Yun's and those in urban areas.

Further targets and details are expected in the coming days as China's most important political annual meetings of the National People's Congress (NPC) and the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) – known as the Two Sessions – commence, unveiling in greater certainty the next stage of China's development. But it is expected that rural revitalization will feature heavily in any further planning, signaling good news for rural governments, businesses and most importantly, people like Yun and their communities.

Thomas Scott-Bell is an editorial writer for China Focus.

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