The Poverty Alleviation Initiative (PAI) has existed in its present form since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s 18th Party Congress. President Xi Jinping has tied the survival of the Party, its legitimacy as a governing body, and international reputation to the program’s success. To that end, this widespread and all-encompassing initiative has entered a crucial phase, marked by the dedication of immense amounts of resources towards lifting the People’s Republic of China (PRC)’s approximately 82 million impoverished citizens out of poverty. How then, exactly, does the central government go about achieving the astronomically high goals it has set for itself – and how does it ensure it will reach them? As with any government program, information from upper echelons – particularly in English – can be difficult to come by, necessitating comparative research should one hope to understand an issue of such significance. In order to answer this question and fill the associated research gap, a team of 6 Masters students from the Tsinghua-SAIS program traveled to Nanjian County, Yunnan, to conduct interviews and field research over the course of two weeks in January 2018.
Yunnan is widely known to be among the most impoverished provinces in China, containing 10% of China’s officially designated poor counties. Nanjian County is one of the 73 nationally listed poor counties in Yúnnán Province, and has a long history of economic problems combined with a low level of basic economic resources. In total, there are 8,530 listed poor families in the county, which equates to 31,503 people. As a result, Nanjian County is the appropriate place to conduct our research as to the major reasons behind this widespread poverty; the impact of the Poverty Alleviation Initiative on officials and their constituents; and to learn how such an example can increase our understanding of the efficacy of a national effort with such wide-ranging impact and strict deadlines.
A National Effort at the Local Level: Meeting with Officials
A Brief Overview of Poverty in Wuliangshan:
Cha Xiubin, Party Secretary (Dangwei Shuji –党委书记) of Wuliangshan Township
The current poverty alleviation initiative, launched in 2014, is distinguished from previous efforts by two primary characteristics; a greater commitment of resources, and an emphasis on utilizing tailored family plans to increase the program’s efficacy and speed. With the national poverty threshold for individuals estimated to be 2,952 RMB per year, officials reported to us that there were 2,467 registered poor families, or 9,699 people, in Wuliangshan Township at the program’s onset; a number that has decreased to 1,383 registered poor families, or 4,953 people in 2017.
In addition, the group was told that the government utilizes an additional designation for those in particularly dire circumstances, a category known as Di Bao (低保). As this represents the lowest socioeconomic stratum for citizens, program administrators have set a goal for each village to eliminate poverty at this level by a specific deadline. To this end, officials are required to spend at least 25 weeks of the year in their designated village. Although the group was informed that only three out of 13 families had been lifted out of Di Bao poverty during this original anticipated timeframe, Shen Zhengbo noted that the government frequently readjusts its plans based on the changing circumstances of each family to give targets a foundation in reality. As such, data collected will be integrated into future policy proposals.
To construct a program that addresses the specific needs of Nanjian citizens, the Office of Poverty Alleviation has identified five major factors contributing to poverty in the county: a lack of money to develop a personal industry; a lack of specific skills and techniques required to pursue such industries; a lack of sufficient labor or ability to work; health issues; and a lack of education. Administrator’s therefore designed six initiatives within the program in response: “liberating people's minds,” industry as a cornerstone of anti-poverty, the creation of available finance as incentive, leaving no ethnic group behind, the “1-2-4-8 Model,” and “hyper-normal” measures.
“Liberating minds” and industry as a cornerstone of anti-poverty
Over dinner on the first evening, Jin and Shen revealed that data from 2013 placed the average education of poor people in China at 5.4 years of school. The OPA believes that this education deficit has contributed to a lack of “personal initiatives” and a “resistance to modernity” that perpetuates regional poverty. Education is seen as the key to the “liberation of people’s minds” and the development of sustainable personal industries that will eradicate poverty. One approach to reaching this goal has been coordination with Tsinghua University and Chonming District of Shanghai to develop local workshops that equip people with the necessary skills for a future of sustained income beyond the end of the program. Similarly, the government has deployed officials to local families to assess their land, determine the optimal revenue-producing crops for their area, and allocate the necessary resources to assist in the transition of their personal industry. Officials will continue to visit families throughout the year to teach the requisite skills for the season, and in doing so guarantee a higher income and degree of self-sufficiency. Officials see this aspect of the program as part of an effort to foster a local desire to modernize the region, and frequently post propaganda slogans and Xi Jinping quotes in support. These efforts were explained as stemming from the core of socialism, as its adherents truly want to help impoverished people.
Leaving no ethnic group behind
Attempting to simultaneously raise every minority out of poverty has received special consideration. China has 55 minorities, with populations that vary in size by county. In one Miao village, 100% of the population is registered poor, with no gradient of affluence as found in other villages throughout the county. Such circumstances make their situation one of particular concern. As a result, the government has developed three specific programs to provide assistance: greater funding for infrastructure in their areas; aid for the development of their own industry; and resource allocation for the protection of their culture and heritage.
Each number in the “1-2-4-8” refers to a specific element of the model developed by Nanjian County. Officials focus on one specific group of people: listed poor families. They identify two major focuses of the initiative: housing and income. There are four major delineated steps to address each of the aforementioned focuses: for housing, a migration program, a demolition program, a reparation/stabilization program, and a reconstruction program offered to a small portion of the population; for income, the government ensures families have a stable and sustainable source of income, can produce something by themselves to increase income, have money to invest in an enterprise to earn revenue, and if they do not have any means to earn money a small portion of the population will be given a government stipend. Finally, the government has eight targets or goals: ensuring poor families have secure and stable housing; sustainable income; safe, clean water; secure electricity availability; television in the home; universal access to education for children through at least middle school; roads connecting villages to each other to escape mountain isolation; medical treatment and hospital presence to take care of sicknesses.
The hyper-normal allocation of human and fiscal capital distinguishes this specific initiative from those of years past. 3,991 officials from state and provincial-levels have been assigned to the program, with each attached to at least one family with whom they must work to formulate individualized strategies that develop a personal industry.
The effective initiatives to date
Three aspects of the Nanjian program were identified as having been the most effective: loans, which can be used to develop personal industry; employment, in that some leading enterprises employ a number of workers from poor families to aid them in establishing an income; and education, for young children and adults, to help them learn valuable skills, change their working methods, and thereby provide motivation through new opportunities for success.
Poverty Alleviation Through a Personal Lens: Meeting with Families
Education Assistance in Practice: The Li Family – Shang Tu Guang Ba Natural Village, Xishan Administrative Village
The Li household includes six members: Mr. Li Xinmin, aged 38; Mrs. Li; their two children of primary school and infant age; and Mr. Li’s two parents. Mr. Li’s parents reported having completed primary school, while Mr. and Mrs. Li completed middle school. The family derives most of their income from the cultivation of tobacco, a staple crop in Xishan which the government purchases from poor farmers wholesale as part of the poverty alleviation initiative. The family cited a lack of formal job training and education as their primary barrier to financial mobility, as it has limited their employment opportunities and lowered their income potential.
Upon their registration with the OPA in January of 2016, officials sought to reduce the family’s financial burden and improve the next generation’s prospects by enrolling the children in a school program that provides free tuition, board and food through the nationally required middle school level, with additional opportunities for subsidies at the high school and university level. This initiative is intended to break the cycle in which the financial immediacy of poverty creates a high opportunity cost for continued education, such that children prematurely exit the education system, their best opportunity for social mobility. In one such visited school sponsored by Tsinghua University, 78 of the approximately 220 students enrolled were from registered poor families in Xishan Township.
The Liu family is comprised of five members: Mr. Liu Heshun: Mrs. Liu: their son, age 15; their daughter, age 8; and Mr. Liu’s mother. Mr. Liu reported having completed the second grade, while Ms. Liu completed the fourth. Like many in the Xishan region, the family first heard of the OPA initiative from neighbors. Although Mr. Liu was originally a tobacco farmer, government agricultural engineers determined that the family’s land was more conducive for the cultivation of winter peaches and therefore aided the family in transitioning their primary means of revenue.
In addition to instructional support, the OPA has provided the Liu Family with fertilizer and seeds free of cost as part of a self-starter initiative, as well as an irrigation system for the new peach trees. At the time of the interview, the Liu Family owned 13 – 14 acres of peaches, with one acre containing 90 trees and one tree yielding 20 kg of peaches. As one peach typically sells for 8 RMB, the Liu Family is now positioned for a new annual profit of over 100,000 RMB per year. Though they will not see their first harvest until next year, the local government has agreed in advance to help sell any peaches that the family cannot sell themselves.
Shortcomings of the Current Model: The Zhe Family – Wuliang Shan
The Zhe household, the only Yi minority family interviewed, consists of five people: Mr. Zhe Zhenke, Mrs. Zhe, Mr. Zhe’s father, and two sons - enrolled in the last year of high school and middle school, respectively. When asked about Mr. and Mrs. Zhe’s primary concern, Mrs. Zhe cited health – and began to cry. Both suffer from hypertension and cerebral infections that prohibit them from working and earning a sufficient income. As the initiative’s medical program only covers hospitalizations, outpatient procedures and medicines purchased from local pharmacies must be paid out-of-pocket. Though the family had risen out of poverty in the past, these recent difficulties, exacerbated by their son’s education costs, pushed the family back into poverty despite the presence of the initiative.
It was later explained that the county’s goal of a 3% poverty rate accounts for such cases where the medical situation is out of both family and governmental control. Because Mr. and Mrs. Zhe cannot work, they, and others in the same situation, are not eligible for the government initiatives designed to help people build their own personal industries – arguably the most emphasized part of the program. As a result, these families mostly receive cash stipends, and the local party branch spends a significant portion of its time with them to ensure they do not fall back into poverty again. It seems, however, these officials are well acquainted with and indeed account for the high probability of failure in these cases.
When visiting families and conducting research, the group kept in mind the six points used by initiative officials to evaluate a family’s condition: if a family lacks food, clothing, secure education through middle school, medical care for serious illnesses, and secure housing, they are officially declared poor. Conversely, a family is considered free from poverty if it has: a steady income for more than three years, reliable and safe housing, the ability to guarantee their children’s education through middle school and the financial capacity to send them through high school, insurance against serious disease, a secure retirement pension, and has received at least one of the five specific anti-poverty initiatives offered by the government.
Housing is a primary concern for an estimated 440 out of 3500 families in Nanjian, and the initiative is currently reconstructing homes, as well as building new communities. This is part of the aforementioned migration initiative – these communities, of which four already exist, include finished houses in dedicated community spaces supporting 117 families and 523 total people, with services like grocery stores currently under construction. The people selected to move as part of this initiative are those in the direst of housing conditions, and the government attempts to convince those apprehensive about leaving their lands by offering advance tours of the communities. People who choose to live in these developments maintain ownership of their previous land to farm and work, which are usually close by. Additionally, associated government subsidies equate to 26,000 RMB and 25 m2 per person. This is a national initiative, and the government at the county level hopes to use this as an attractive alternative to rebuilding structurally compromised housing in current impoverished locations.
Though the group did not tour any of these new facilities, it did interact with several families who have had their houses rebuilt with (usually partial) funding from the Initiative. As the Liu Family’s primary concern was also related to the unsafe conditions of their home, a sixty-year-old structure, Mr. Liu has applied for a 58,000 RMB grant to alleviate the estimated 100,000 RMB cost of a replacement home he is currently building. Given that Mr. Liu will be unable to pay for a new home without government assistance, officials informed the group that the applications of those with immediate housing needs are rarely rejected by the OPA. For the Zhang family, the high costs of improving either their home or its infrastructure had kept the family in poverty, and as a result the family registered with the Office of Poverty Alleviation in 2015. Their case is one that demonstrates the intersection of housing with other financial and infrastructure-based aspects of the Initiative. To assist, the OPA enrolled the family in several support programs that provided targeted financial aid. Out of the families we interviewed, 75% of them had received help through the housing aspect of the initiative, regardless of whether they identified it as a primary concern or not; while personal industry is the most emphasized aspect of the program on the consumer side, home construction is its government side counterpart. While this illustrates the complexity of issues facing extremely impoverished families, it also highlights a potential shortfall of the initiative: when a deadline is so strict, the repercussions so great for coming up short, and the size of the constituent base so large, it is bound to happen that a by-the-book solution is utilized.
During the visit to the OPA, a group member inquired as to the percentage of people unable to work, and whether it was low enough that the Initiative’s self-starter programs are still successful; many of the families interviewed, per the recount above, are unable to work or create their own industries for one reason or another. This group, we were told, accounts for 10% of poor families, so the industry program can help an estimated 90% with the remainder receiving loans through any of the loan programs discussed previously. The general understanding is that this program only addresses the primary concerns of families that have many complex problems behind their present situations because, officials justified, the government is a limited responsibility corporation. This means they cannot account for all their needs, and only focus on getting them out of poverty. Village party leaders are very familiar with the specific needs of each family, they added, which helps.
Our discussion at the Office of Poverty Alleviation concluded with a look to the future: how will the county sustain its results, and if the deadline is missed, what happens? First, it was noted that a county’s chief leader would face severe consequences should they miss a goal. As a result of these expectations, they and their subordinates work almost constantly. All of the steps taken by the government are essentially conceived to help people develop in any area, and so even if the 2019 goal is met, officials will continue to conduct such activities. For the whole county, the central government will give its officials a new goal based on attaining the next level of affluence. The Party’s stated final goal for China is to become a mid-level nationally developed country by 2050 (this deadline has a long history, dating back to Deng Xiaoping’s leadership, as a benchmark to maintain party legitimacy). Whether or not the continuation of such efforts past the expiration of the program will be overshadowed by new, equally intense national priorities cannot be predicted. As one member pointed out, the results of this program will not be measurable until at least 20 years from today, so for now, the party is just doing its best.
632 county officials have made what Shi termed a “political life or death” pledge to fight poverty to its end, a signed agreement under which, regardless of their position, they will resign or wait to be removed if they fail in their mission, never to be reassigned. These pledges are based on the county’s goal of having a poverty rate of 3% or less by 2019.
Such a pledge becomes problematic when its scale is examined. According to Jin, Nanjian County has the goal of reducing the current poverty rate of 10% to 3% by 2019, which constitutes about 220,000 people. This is already down from 30% three or four years ago, a feat almost unbelievable based on the data provided about obstacles faced by program officials. When considering the reality that many officials are already overworked, discussed further below, political life or death pledges have the potential to heighten the possibility of inflated numbers. Nevertheless, there is no available information to negate potential suspicions as of yet, only accounts from foreign media voicing similar, if inconclusive, concerns.
This focus on “ambition” was particularly interesting for our group, as we observed through our interviews how families would interpret this word. The issue of education would continue to be echoed, though we did not get the chance to speak with a family living in Nanjian who was categorized as resistant to being lifted out of poverty.
Party officials shared several key challenges during discussions pertaining to the program. On the first night, Jin highlighted the need for infrastructure development by noting that ten years ago a trip from downtown Nanjian to the most remote village took six hours by car. Indeed, the next day would be made possible by roads constructed under the auspices of the Poverty Alleviation Organization. Perhaps the most repeated of the concerns was the bureaucratic nature of the work conducted due to the strict requirements of the program under the auspices of the central government. Regular visits, enormous amounts of paperwork, budgeting, strict data entry requirements on each family, and other regimented activities were cited by both the Office of Poverty Alleviation and the Youth League of Nanjian as absorbing endless hours of time and impeding potentially more productive work. Additionally, the sheer size of the Poverty Alleviation Program has proven complicated for all involved parties. According to Miss Pu, coordination is a challenge, as all institutions in the country must take part in the program. One must also consider that the program’s scale is unprecedented; so many officials are still trying to find the best way to conduct their work. As they are in a period of transition, it is difficult for officials to rush through the tedious everyday tasks, such frequent policy changes, extended data entry, copious amounts of paperwork, and the energy their work consumes.
In addition to this paperwork, the strict requirements for family visits documented previously – and the paperwork they generate in the form of data – contribute to their superiors’ demands of long hours. A point mentioned throughout the group’s end-of-day discussions was the overworking of employees as a negative byproduct of the PAI. While the sustainability of elements within the initiative themselves was not always clear, nor directly addressed, the least sustainable aspect of all was most certainly the overworking of employees. Incentives in the form of future promotions are a step, but this is not a realizable goal should the employee die of exhaustion first. This, in addition to skewed data, mentioned before, is a threat to the stability of the program and its ability to achieve long-term goals.
In preparing to conclude our research, the group analyzed the problems presented in the analysis above to suggest the following solutions, based on our admittedly limited scope of the research question:
- Streamline the paperwork and minimize the bureaucracy;
- Limit the evaluations and government visits to decrease stress and resource scarcity;
- Take better care of government workers and encourage work-life balance;
- Encourage a “social justice” approach to combating poverty; emphasize party member’s careers less and citizens they are trying to lift from poverty more.
As with any collaborative research initiative, concluding a report so heavily based on the personal experiences of research subjects as a barometer for success would be remiss to exclude the personal experiences of those researchers as the gauge for judging impact. As was previously noted, it will continue to be impossible to judge whether the Poverty Alleviation Initiative is a success for many years to come. Should even 20 years grant readers the ability of hindsight, deceptive numbers, the emotional toll of Party officials, or even changing national priorities may be among the possibilities that impact the long-term durability and pervasiveness of (or perhaps just some aspects of) the Initiative. However, this is not exactly a progress report for a particularly poor county registered with the OPA – it is more of a case study, with interviews that investigate published (or unpublished) numbers in action amongst the lives of the impoverished and their hope-to-be saviors. The perspectives of those conducting said research naturally enriches such synthesis.
- “10 Facts About Poverty in China,” The Borgen Project, October 23, 2016, https://borgenproject.org/poverty-in-china/ (accessed February 1, 2018).
- The analysis included in this manner is not an attempt to discredit any of the information provided to the group by the warm and relatively open officials from the Office of Poverty Alleviation; nor does it intend to pass judgment on the program or its constituents, including their priorities and lives. It is based purely on notes in both Chinese and English resulting from scheduled interviews with various perspectives, and aims to be as factually accurate as possible while remaining realistic about the situations observed.
- Di Bao (officially known in English as the “Minimum Livelihood Guarantee Scheme” literally translates to “subsistence allowance,” and refers to one of the rare cash transfer incentives employed by the Chinese Government as part of the Poverty Alleviation Initiative. While it was presented to us as a category of people falling into a special category of poor below the poverty line, in reality the Di Bao program “uses means-tested transfers to try to assure that no registered urban resident has an income below the stipulated ‘poverty line’.” (The World Bank, Di Bao : a guaranteed minimum income in urban China?, Policy Research Working Paper WPS3805, January 1, 2006 (The World Bank, July 1, 2010), 1-4). While the targeting aspect of this scheme – conceived chiefly to target urban poverty – is more accurate than any similar enough to use as comparison in the developing world, the program is widely considered to fall woefully short of its goals: many of its measurements are flawed or deceptive, many poor do not receive aid even taking into consideration a margin of error for measurements, and it cannot in and of itself eliminate urban poverty.
- A “personal industry,” “industry development,” and similar terms refer to each family having its own sustainable way to make a living, usually by picking dedicated growth of one crop as the family’s “industry.” One to two industries on a rotating basis are usually considered sufficient to keep a family out of poverty, and the government will subsidize necessary seeds and cultivation tools for the six staple crops of Nanjian: walnuts, tobacco, black-bone chicken, beef, medicinal herbs, and tea leaves.
- This small percentage was defined as 3% of the population the government is allowing as a margin of error in achieving its goal of raising all families out of poverty.
- So far, officials have created 20,392 new strategies for families through this method.
Our primary point of contact for making connections with local influencers was Jin Feng, Deputy Director of the Office of Nanjian Government. Alongside him was Shen Zhengbo, First Secretary (Diyi Shuji – 第一书记) of the committee of Xishan Village, Nanjian Township, Nanjian County, who graciously provided information alongside a tour of his designated village, during which we interviewed families under his watch. Cha Enjun, Cadre in Residence (Zhucun Ganbu – 驻村干部) assigned to the committee of Xishan Village from the Bureau of Transportation of Nanjian, was also instrumental in explaining the context of our interviewees, the role of the committee, and teaching us some useful phrases in Yi language.
We had the opportunity to interview Cha Xiubin, Party Secretary (Dangwei Shuji – 党委书记) of Wuliangshan Township, Nanjian County, who kindly answered our questions and invited us to dinner to discuss the situation of those officials tasked to families and preoccupied by the Poverty Alleviation Initiative in the county.
In another aspect of our educational experience, we were given a tour of the Yi Minority Cultural Museum of Nanjian by Shi Zhenghong, Museum Director, who provided us with background on the ethnic makeup of the county and the culture of the people we met.
No meeting was so informative on the nitty-gritty details of the PAI in Nanjian as that with Shi Langfang, Vice Director of the Office of Poverty Alleviation of Nanjian. Providing a different perspective on the same topic, Pu Qingqing, Head of the Community Youth League of Nanjian, ensured our questions were answered despite the necessary cancellation of our colloquiums – for which she and her volunteers had prepared – due to the visit of the Secretary of the State Youth League on the same day. She was joined by two volunteers from Sichuan and Shandong provinces stationed in Yúnnán through the “West Plan Volunteers” program, both of whom were in the process of obtaining their necessary grassroots experience in the hopes of a future Party promotion. The number of officials with whom we were able to speak, the warmth of our reception, and the willingness with which these officials spoke to us surpassed all expectations, and was crucial in making our field research in Nanjian as extensive and thorough as it was.