What Is China’s Rural Poverty Alleviation Program?

Written By: @zhonghuajiabot Published: 27/11/2020

In September 2019, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres highly praised China’s poverty alleviation achievement. In his speech, he presented an interesting fact, that China’s poverty alleviation campaign has helped over 800 million people get out of poverty – a massive number bigger than the whole European population combined. However, suspicions regarding China’s achievements came along quickly. For one, many commentators questioned China’s poverty line, suspecting that the Chinese government has changed the poverty line in order to make the number look bigger. In an attempt to help mitigate these types of concerns and bring more awareness of China’s achievements to the masses, our Mango Press researchers have dug into China’s poverty alleviation program in more intricate detail.

China’s long and difficult anti-poverty course

Since the middle of the 1950s, China has adopted a dual economic structure that separates rural and urban economies. The poverty problem of rural residents has been the main object of the national poverty alleviation policy, which is the focus of this report. Eliminating poverty has always been one of the major topics for the Chinese government, but only since 1978, when China decided to enforce economic reform, the mission was put forward and expanded to a nation-wide level. Generally, the process can be divided into five main phases, 1978-1985, 1986-1993, 1994-2000, 2001-2010, 2011-2020.

In 1978, China pushed forward land reform in which the people’s commune system was replaced by the family contract system. The reform had boosted land output dramatically as a result of improved working efficiency. According to official data, grain output per capita increased by 14% from 1978-1985, and, on average, over 17.8 million people were lifted out of poverty each year during this phase as a result of this. Starting from 1986, various anti-poverty institutions were set up, special funds were put in place, and for the first time, the government introduced a poverty standard by calculating Engel’s coefficient level. 

The turning point occurred in 1994, when the government held the National Poverty Alleviation Work Conference. They made the promise that in seven years, 80 million people would be lifted out of poverty. The plan was extremely comprehensive and included various aspects that could help poor people sustain the promised better living standards, besides income or food. The main policies can be summarised into the following:

  • Support for poor households with basic conditions for stable food and clothing. Each household could contract 0.16 acres of the orchard or 0.16 acres of cropland on average, and at least one person in each household was offered job opportunities in the town enterprises or developed areas.
  • Infrastructure construction will be strengthened. This includes ensuring residents and livestock will have clean water, roads will be built in the vast majority of poverty-stricken villages, towns, and local markets; and the vast majority of poverty-stricken villages will have access to electricity.
  • Improve the education and health level in impoverished areas. Popularising primary education and actively eliminating illiteracy among young and middle-aged people; carrying out adult vocational and technical education and training so that most young and middle-aged workers can master one or two practical skills; improving medical and health conditions.

The results were stunning. During the 15 years from 1986 to 2000, 16.3 million acres of basic farmland was built in the poor rural areas of China, which helped provide clean drinking water for more than 77.25 million people and 83.98 million large livestock. By the end of 2000, 95.5%, 89%, 69%, and 67.7% of administrative villages in poverty-stricken areas had access to electricity, roads, postal services, and telephones respectively.

However, the government’s effort did not stop there. In 2001, as the overall Chinese economy improved, the government decided to increase the poverty line by 40%. Although the revised number of people under the poverty line was almost five times higher, it is an important step to guarantee a meaningful outcome that reflects the material conditions of Chinese society. The same also applies to the revision of the poverty line in 2011, where the number rose by over 450%. In the newest outline of poverty alleviation and development in rural China published in 2011, the government added even more comprehensive criteria. According to the outline, by 2020, those who are currently under the poverty line will not worry about food and clothing; and compulsory education, basic medical care, and housing will be guaranteed. The growth rate of the per capita net income for farmers in poverty-stricken areas will be higher than the national average level, and the main indicators of basic public services will be close to the national average level, thus reversing the trend of widening the development gap. More detailed provisions include: 

  • By 2015, the basic farmland and water conservancy facilities in poverty-stricken areas will be greatly improved and every farmer will be guaranteed a patch of field on which a farmer’s grain is grown. By 2020, the level of farmland infrastructure construction will be significantly improved. 
  • By 2015, the problem of rural drinking water safety in poor areas will be solved. And by 2020, the quality of rural drinking water and the popularisation of tap water will be further improved.
  • By 2020, all rural areas will have access to electricity.
  • By 2020, roads will be accessible to all villages, so as to realise the bus service for all villages.
  • By 2020, each town shall have a state-run health center, and each administrative village will have a health room. The participation rate of the new rural cooperative medical system shall be at more than 90%, and the overall coverage of outpatient service will be realised; there will be one general practitioner in each town health center.
  • By 2020, fully realise the access of radio and television to all households; all-natural villages will have access to broadband; all key counties will have libraries and cultural centers.
  • By 2020, realise the full coverage of the new rural social endowment insurance system.
  • By 2020, the forest coverage rate will increase by 3.5 % compared with the end of 2010.

So, what does it mean in terms of getting rid of poverty? It is clear that the goal of China’s poverty alleviation effort is never solely about improving people’s income, but their overall living standards. With the 2011 poverty alleviation outline, the Chinese government gives the answer to this question with the “eight haves”. The “eight haves” of poor households are: first, they have safe housing; second, they have safe drinking water; third, they have basic farmland; fourth, they have income increasing industries; fifth, at least one person in the household has a professional skill qualification certificate; sixth, they have basic social security; seventh, they have surplus grain at home; eighth, they have surplus money on hand. When listed poor people can live at least with the mentioned materials or resources, their names will be removed from the national database. 

Almost ten years have passed since then, so what has the government achieved? According to China Economic Weekly, by the end of 2019, 97% of the poverty-stricken people who have established files have been lifted out of poverty, 94% of the poverty-stricken counties have been removed from the database, and overall regional poverty has been eradicated entirely. On 16 Oct 2020, Xinhuanet shared a map visualising the whole anti-poverty program progress. Here, we took a Tibetan county, Cona county, as an example. Cona county is located in the south of Tibet Autonomous Region and southeast of the Himalaya Mountains. The total land area of Cona county is 34,979 square kilometers. It has jurisdiction over 9 townships and 1 town, 25 villages, and 55 villagers’ groups. By the end of 2019, the total population of Cona county was 15,358, including 13,284 people engaged in agriculture and animal husbandry. By the end of 2019, 24 villages, 1,178 households or 3,142 people have been lifted out of poverty, and the poverty incidence rate has dropped from 23.36% to 0%. Roads, electricity, and other fundamental infrastructures have been built to satisfy the residents’ needs. Countless cases like Cona county are happening in mainland China, and it truly becomes a sustainable project which will benefit poor regions in the long term.

Solve the puzzle

Getting back to the controversy concerning the poverty line. In 1986, China formulated the national poverty alleviation standard for the first time, classifying farmers with an annual net income of less than 206 yuan as extreme poor. The line was lifted to 865 yuan in 2001 and to 2,300 yuan in 2011. Nevertheless, the number is not static as it floats in relation to inflation or the Consumer Price Index. According to the Poverty Alleviation and Development Office of the State Council of China, “By 2015, the current price of this standard is 2,855 yuan. Applying the PPP method, it is equivalent to US $2.2 per day, slightly higher than the international extreme poverty standard of US $1.9. The standard of 2,855 yuan is the current minimum poverty alleviation standard in China. According to the regulations, provinces can also set local poverty alleviation standards higher than this standard. At present, 12 provinces and cities have formulated local standards higher than the national standards, which are generally around 4,000 yuan, and the higher ones are more than 6,000 yuan.” (2015)

Furthermore, by analysing the data of the registered poor population in March 2020, we can see that the per capita income of the people who have been lifted out of poverty is more than 9,000 yuan, and the per capita income of the remaining poor people is more than 6,000 yuan, which is way higher than that of the global poverty line published by the UN. Many people cannot fathom how complicated China’s poverty alleviation system is, and we should know that there is not a universal standard for all areas, not even inside China where different provinces administer different poverty line standards. Even experts in the UN admitted that the current global poverty line is extremely subjective. Charles Kenny argued in his report of ‘Goal 1—End Poverty in All its Forms Everywhere’: “Poverty lines at the national and local level are frequently revised upward, and there are good reasons for this. This approach, however, risks the possibility that steady development progress will not yield poverty reduction, simply because the poverty line keeps moving too.” 


China’s poverty alleviation program has drawn a lot of attention from the west but, unfortunately, most westerners cast doubts on the motives of this initiative and link it to outright propaganda from the Communist Party of China. Certain western journalists went to these impoverished areas to get first-hand information, and all the contents presented in their reports revolved around some posters hung on the wall, coupled with unpleasant whispers. This type of ignorant research will only hinder interested parties from understanding and, possibly, learning from the mechanism behind this initiative, especially for those poverty-stricken countries who are also struggling with extreme poverty issues. At last, let’s remember our slogan: “No investigation, No right to speak!” – and let us also learn from the socialist method in eliminating extreme poverty, and improving people’s material conditions, as evidenced by China.

Mango Press


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