Report: analysts from around the world explore and celebrate China’s poverty alleviation successes

On Saturday 26 June, Friends of Socialist China held its first webinar: China’s Path to Zero Poverty, supported by the Geopolitical Economic Research Group. This event brought together a diverse range of speakers with different perspectives on China’s successes in eradicating poverty. The entire webinar (along with the individual speech videos) can be watched on our YouTube channel. Below we provide a summary of the proceedings.

Introducing the event, Radhika Desai (Professor of Political Studies, University of Manitoba, Director, Geopolitical Economy Research Group) commended the extraordinary effort on the part of the Communist Party of China to eradicate extreme poverty. “It’s been a hard slog, as old as the revolution itself.”

Radhika noted that land reform, carried out in the liberated territories in the 1930s and 1940s and then extended throughout the country following the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, was the first step along the road to eradicating poverty, and provided the firm foundation for transforming what was then one of the poorest countries in the world.

Speaking of the targeted anti-poverty campaign of the last few years, Radhika pointed out that the threshold for lifting people out of poverty was not exclusively based on the World Bank daily income figure. This income figure is accompanied by ‘Two Assurances and Three Guarantees’: assuring that people have sufficient access to food and clothing, and providing guaranteed access to compulsory education (nine years), basic medical services and safe housing.

Danny Haiphong (contributing editor to the Black Agenda Report and co-editor of Friends of Socialist China) introduced the Friends of Socialist China platform, explaining that it was formed out of a dire need in the West to understand China and its ongoing socialist revolution.

Danny discussed the importance of highlighting China’s successes in poverty alleviation, as they are the successes of Chinese socialism. Even as the major capitalist countries saw millions of people plunged into poverty during the Covid-19 pandemic, China’s extraordinarily effective response to the virus allowed it to maintain its commitment to the anti-poverty programme throughout this period.

Speaking of the motivation for organising a webinar on China’s poverty eradication, Danny said the aim was to help bring a greater understanding of China to the world, especially for those living in countries such as the United States – which is currently pursuing a dangerous path of confrontation with China in place of much-needed cooperation around critical global problems.

Speaking from Beijing, Li Jingjing (reporter and editor for CGTN) described her experiences observing the targeted poverty alleviation programme in Guangxi, Xinjiang and Tibet. She noted that, in a huge and geographically diverse country such as China, there are assorted reasons for poverty, hence the need for a targeted approach. This means identifying those individuals and families in need of help, understanding the underlying causes of their poverty, and developing a plan to meet their specific needs. This detailed work is organised at a local government level, with teams of officials and volunteers sent to work over an extended period with individual households.

Jingjing pointed out that poverty alleviation isn’t simply a matter of giving people money. It has to be sustainable, which means a huge variety of techniques such as building roads, providing professional skills training, repairing houses, setting up small companies working on ecological protection projects, and so on. She ended by stating that the poverty alleviation work has not ended now the target of wiping out extreme poverty has been met; the focus from this point onwards is on helping people in relative poverty and continuing to revitalise rural areas.

Roland Boer (Professor of Marxist philosophy at Dalian University of Technology and author of ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics – A Guide for Foreigners’) discussed poverty alleviation within the framework of Chinese Marxist human rights. He noted that different cultures, nations and classes can have different conceptions of human rights, and that the modern Chinese conception is centred on anti-hegemonic sovereignty and material rights.

Anti-hegemonic sovereignty is common to much of the developing world, particularly those countries that waged a protracted anti-colonial struggle. It is based on non-interference – not dominating other countries and not accepting domination by other countries. Thus freedom from colonial or imperialist oppression is considered a human right, and it underpins material rights – the rights to work, food, clothing, housing, education, healthcare and socio-economic wellbeing – because it includes the freedom to choose a development path that benefits the Chinese people. This genuine sovereignty achieved via the Chinese Revolution allows the government to prioritise lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.

Utsa Patnaik (Professor Emerita of the School of Economic Studies and Planning at the Jawaharlal Nehru University of India, and one of India’s topmost Marxist scholars) struck a somewhat discordant note, opining that both India and China’s claims to poverty alleviation are exaggerated, as they are based on what she considers to be an inadequate threshold of extreme poverty. She noted that the World Bank threshold (currently $1.90 per day) was arrived at 40 years ago, and set at a level of per capita spending correlating with a certain minimum nutritional intake. The dollar amount has increased in line with a consumer price index, but this doesn’t take into account the reality that prices have soared for many essential goods and services. Therefore the same poverty line is associated with a lower nutritional intake than it was 40 years ago. (Editor: It should be noted that the Chinese definition of extreme poverty does also incorporate the ‘Two Assurances and Three Guarantees’ as mentioned above).

Utsa stated that actual poverty levels in China are certainly very much lower than in India, as the Chinese government has always been much more focused on poverty alleviation. She further noted that, from the mid-2000s, China started to take more seriously the problem of poverty in the rural areas, where some sectors of the population had suffered from a market-oriented growth strategy. Since that time, elements of the welfare state have been re-built; however, Patnaik opined that, having started along the road of market-oriented growth, it’s difficult to return to people-oriented growth.

Speaking from Beijing, Michael Dunford (Emeritus Professor, University of Sussex and Visiting Professor, Chinese Academy of Sciences) noted that, at the time of the founding of the People’s Republic, China was among the poorest countries in the world. Placed under a total embargo by the US, it faced enormous difficulties in its development. Nonetheless, in the initial period of socialist construction – the first three decades – life expectancy increased from 35 to 68, and the population almost doubled. Primary school enrolment reached 93 percent – approximately the same as the industrialised countries. This was extraordinary progress.

The improvement in relations with the US from the early 1970s paved the way for Reform and Opening Up, via which China was able to acquire capital goods from Western countries, attract investment, learn new technologies and management techniques, and access a global market. The huge economic growth from 1979 unquestionably led to a positive transformation of the lives of hundreds of millions of people.

However, economic growth alone cannot meet the fundamental human rights of the whole population. Therefore various schemes were adopted from the early 1980s onwards to improve living conditions for the rural poor: for example phasing out agricultural taxes and fees and introducing ecological compensation schemes. In 2003, the new rural cooperative medical insurance system was set up and made available to everyone. In 2007, free 9-year compulsory education was guaranteed. Alongside these measures, there has been huge infrastructure investment in rural areas. Overall there has been a sustained political and financial commitment to eradicating poverty, and there is a general acceptance in Chinese society that poverty is a social problem, not the fault of the poor.

Speaking from Shanghai, Tings Chak (art director and researcher with the Tricontinental Institute and Dongsheng News) talked about her first-hand experiences doing field visits and interviews about China’s poverty alleviation programme.

Tings reiterated the point made by Li Jingjing, that the anti-poverty campaign of recent years has been very targeted, specific and multi-dimensional, centred on the following questions: who is in poverty? Where are they? What has to be done to allow them to rise out of poverty? China’s battle against poverty is multi-generational and starts in the early days of the Revolution; however the most recent programme focuses on the last 100 million of the population, particularly people living in inaccessible and mountainous areas.

The campaign has been multi-dimensional, involving the state-owned enterprises, private businesses, government bodies, civil society groups, and even the military. There has been a mass mobilisation under the leadership of the CPC. Three million party members were sent to live and work in the countryside. Each small team was assigned a single village, and each cadre was assigned one or two households. Tings described the daily reality on the ground as being “not particularly glamorous” – it might involve finding someone a job, or encouraging someone to go to school, or fixing someone’s front door. There was no singular mandate from above; rather it has been a highly decentralised and diverse campaign.

The research Tings was working on informs a Tricontinental Institute dossier on Chinese poverty elimination, due to be released on 23 July 2021.

Ovigwe Eguegu (columnist for the China Africa Project, Nigeria) focused on the lessons of China’s successes in poverty alleviation for other countries in the developing world, particularly in Africa. He said that a key lesson is the importance of strong and accountable political institutions, with their roots in the people. The Chinese poverty alleviation campaign emerges out of the Chinese Revolution, and China’s socialist government considers poverty alleviation to be its most important achievement. So, China is a strong state with a clear emphasis on eradicating poverty. Ovigwe said that the Bretton Woods institutions have always lectured Africans that a small state leads to prosperity, but we have found that this does not work in reality.

Ovigwe also noted that China’s success has its roots in national sovereignty and an emphasis on self-reliance. Whereas many countries of the developing world have been reliant on Western institutions for loans and investment – and therefore have had to make compromises in shaping their development strategy – China has been able to pursue a development path of its own choosing; one that it has constructed and refined through an extended process of experimentation. This pursuit of development has been consistent throughout the Chinese Revolution. Some people have an incorrect assessment of China’s rise – that things were terrible in the Mao period (1949-76) and only started to improve with the reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping from 1978. In fact each stage of China’s development builds on the foundation of the previous stages: in the Mao period, China learned to walk so that, in the Deng period, it could run; now in the Xi Jinping period it is flying.

Ovigwe concluded by urging other countries to learn from China’s path, which is built on national independence, strong and accountable institutions, and extensive infrastructure.

Speaking from El Salvador, Camila Escalante (journalist and co-founder of Kawsachun News, Bolivia) talked about China’s involvement in key infrastructure projects in Latin America. She noted that, when the Movement for Socialism (MAS) came to power in 2006, Bolivia was submerged in extreme poverty and desperately in need of infrastructure development. China has been a key partner in moving this infrastructure work forward, including with the launch of Bolivia’s first telecoms satellite, Túpac Katari 1 (named after the 18th-century indigenous Aymara anti-colonial leader), which now provides internet and mobile phone signal to the entire country. Camila also observed that China has never attempted to interfere with the MAS’s development model, which is based on nationalising natural resources and investing the profits in projects that benefit the people.

Evo Morales, Bolivian president from 2006 until his overthrow in a right-wing coup in 2018, has said that Bolivia has a great deal of trust in China because, although China is big and Bolivia is small, China has always treated Bolivia as an equal.

Camila also spoke about her experiences reporting in Venezuela, where China has been key to defying the US-imposed sanctions aimed at suffocating the Venezuelan people. China has continued to buy oil and provide vital resources to fight the pandemic and trade with Venezuela. Indeed China has been instrumental across the continent of Latin America fighting the pandemic, supplying vaccines and health supplies to most countries in the region. Camila said that she herself had been vaccinated with Sinopharm in Bolivia.

John Ross (Senior Fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China) talked about the three phases of China’s poverty alleviation. The first phase ran from 1949 to 1978 – the phase of initial socialist construction – during which period the focus was on eliminating feudalism, enacting land reform, and extending basic health and education services to the whole country. In this period, China saw the fastest increase in life expectancy in a major country in the whole of human history. John pointed out that the endless attempts to portray Mao as a maniac and dictator carry no weight whatsoever in China, because people understand that this period was transformative for the country.

The second phase ran from 1978 to 2014, during which period China achieved the fastest and most sustained economic growth in history. This economic growth laid the basis for hundreds of millions of people to improve their conditions of life.

The third phase ran from 2014 to 2020. In this phase, the government has focused on targeted poverty alleviation, actively identifying people living in poverty and devising solutions to improve their living standards. John ridiculed the claims that China’s successes in poverty reduction are owing to the supposed introduction of capitalism from the late 1970s onwards. If that were the case, why haven’t other capitalist countries had similar success? Why has China been so much more effective in eradicating poverty than India? The facts demonstrate precisely that socialism is the best framework for wiping out poverty.

Senator Mushahid Hussain (founding Chairman of Pakistan-China Institute and Chairman of the Pakistan Senate’s Defence Committee) spoke of his experiences travelling to China over the years – the first time in 1970, at the age of 17. He noted that the Cultural Revolution was then at its peak and it was a turbulent time, and poverty could certainly be witnessed. Nonetheless, he remembered observing a great pride; a feeling that the Chinese people were at last in control of their own destiny; that, in Mao’s words proclaiming the People’s Republic on 1 October 1949, “the Chinese people have stood up.”

Mushahid pointed out that China’s efforts in poverty alleviation have been greatly helped by its peaceful foreign policy. China has no imperial ambitions – indeed, China is the only country in the modern age to rise to become a great power without conquering or invading others. This is a point that Jimmy Carter made recently in relation to why China is moving ahead of the US in terms of infrastructure and various areas of technology: China has been at peace for 40 years and has focused its energies on development; meanwhile the US has been almost constantly at war.

Senator Hussain also discussed Pakistani-Chinese cooperation and how Chinese investment is benefitting Pakistan. When the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) was launched in 2015, Mushahid was chair of the parliamentary committee for CPEC. That cooperation has resulted in a 5.8 percent growth rate, along with employment for 75,000 Pakistanis. In formerly underdeveloped areas of Pakistan, women are joining the workforce for the first time, many training as truck drivers. With regard to the pandemic, China has been outstanding in its help to Pakistan, providing vaccines, PPE and expertise.

Senator Hussain concluded by saying that China’s success is something the entire developing world can learn from.

Charles Xu of Qiao Collective (a volunteer collective of diaspora Chinese challenging US aggression on China and elsewhere) highlighted the misconception that poverty alleviation in China only got underway in the post-Mao period. Nothing could be further from the truth. This narrative erases the agrarian roots of the Chinese Revolution and the enormous social transformation associated with the first three decades of the People’s Republic. Charles pointed out that the project of eliminating poverty spans the entire sweep of revolutionary Chinese history, starting in the 1930s in the CPC’s base areas.

Land reform and rural collectivisation made it possible in the early days, even with very limited resources, to provide a basic modicum of shelter, food, education, and public health as fundamental and decommodified rights. And this is where GDP or income figures are deceptive, because they don’t incorporate the production of use values such as these, which are not subject to the law of value.

Charles observed that the people-centred approach to poverty alleviation continues today, giving the example of Yuangudui, a small village in Gansu province. This example, at once typical and idiosyncratic, provides some insight into the concrete reality of poverty alleviation beyond simple numbers: the construction of functional roads linking the village to the nearest town; the revival and rapid completion of a long-dormant aqueduct supplying potable water; the building of secure houses for over 300 households; the establishment of collective village enterprises engaged in agritourism, producing solar power, and rearing sheep.

Charles concluded by saying that China’s success provides lessons for the whole world, particularly the Global South. China’s model of sovereignty and socialism is far more relevant and applicable than the neoliberal model proposed by Washington. As such, China’s development experience is a gift to the world.

The China’s Path to Zero Poverty webinar was inspiring and educational, and we hope that it contributes to improving people’s understanding of Chinese socialism.

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