China recently declared that the National Poverty Alleviation Summary and Commendation Conference has been a success. According to China, it has successfully lifted 98.99 million people living in poverty in the country and achieve the goal of “zero poverty”.
The announcement was accompanied by a media blitzkrieg and much fanfare. However, the truth is a little more complicated than it seems. The major focus of the government project was relocating millions from villages into cities by 2020.
However, the well-established cities were already overburdened and therefore, the population was relocated into newly constructed government housing. The government’s actions were driven by the belief that urban life is accompanied by higher standards of living and drives domestic consumption.
As it so happens, the relocation was not always voluntary and often, coerced. NPR reported in 2020 that villagers have alleged that they were coerced into signing away their farm homes without adequate compensation. To make matters worse, the high-rise apartments they are being relocated to “are either too far from their fields, too expensive or ill-suited for their needs as farmers.”
“Our leaders have been distanced from us regular people at the bottom. They do not know our basic needs. They are completely cut off from us,” one such villager was quoted as saying. Many had been forced to live in government-provided shacks while waiting for new houses to be built.
“The government does not care whether you live or die. They only care about whether you sign an agreement to let them demolish your home,” said another villager. Even after being relocated to apartments with much better amenities, the people had difficulty finding work and struggled to afford the rising costs. “Of course, the house is good. But if we can’t find work, it’ll be difficult here,” a villager said.
Nevertheless, Communist Party officials are proud of their work. “We plucked out the people’s roots of poverty all at once,” secretary Cai Hongmin said. Cai insisted that Lianghekou’s villagers, who had been relocated a short distance away, had leased their land to a hotel developer who would share the dividends with them.
“We are fulfilling many dreams,” Cai said. “The China dream, the poverty alleviation dream, the dream of happiness for hotel guests, the villagers’ dream of multichannel incomes.” Party officials claimed that the villagers were happy because they had turned from “from farmers to shareholders.”
The Chinese government spent significant funds towards poverty alleviation. Between 2016-2020, the party spent $700 billion and that does not include the large donations by government institutions. However, experts worry that the model is unsustainable in the long run.
The lack of jobs in the new settlements continue to remain a matter of concern for the inhabitants. “Life here is much better than my hometown, but now I need money to pay for my food,” one of them told NPR. “Before, we just ate what we grew.”
Such concerns can often lead to social unrest, as they have in the past. Villagers often display little interest in moving to newer facilities of their own volition, leading to the use of force on certain occasions. Such incidents sometimes tend to flare up, as it did in Wukan.
There are other structural concerns with the project as well. The New York Times reported, “While the poverty alleviation program has helped millions of poor people, critics point to the campaign’s rigid definitions. The program assists people classified as extremely poor at some point from 2014 to 2016, without adding others who may have fallen on hard times since then. It also does very little to help poor people in big cities where wages are higher but workers must pay far more for food and rent.”
Furthermore, Foreign Policy reported in 2018, “In August 2017, the International Monetary Fund warned that China’s aggressive debt-driven growth strategy was putting the country on a “dangerous trajectory.” From 2000 to 2014, Chinese debt soared from $2.1 trillion to $28.2 trillion, and it is projected to rise to nearly 300 percent of GDP by 2022.”
“The fate of China’s war on poverty rests on shaky ground. Moving 70 million people out of poverty will require a complete overhaul of its entire social welfare system as well as trillions in new debt. This is a rocky path, even if the government avoids plunging off the cliff into economic crisis. But however the cost is managed, China’s farmers will have to suffer the consequences of the government’s plans, as they always have,” the report added.
Thus, while China claims to have eradicated poverty, the reality is that millions have been forced to relocate to places where they have little job security and struggling to meet the costs of the higher living standards. In addition, they have very little of a safety net to fall back to with their land signed away.