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China aims to end extreme poverty, but COVID-19 exposes gaps

Xi Jinping, is expected to declare victory in the next two months in a campaign to eliminate extreme poverty in the country

By Javier C. Hernández
Published: Oct 26, 2020

China aims to end extreme poverty, but COVID-19 exposes gapsMigrant workers work in the edible fungus poverty alleviation workshop. Congjiang County, Guizhou Province, China, September 22, 2020. Photograph by Costfoto / Barcroft Studios / Future Publishing (Photo credit should read Costfoto/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

Xu Rudong, a farmer in eastern China, thought he had left poverty behind long ago. He turned a small plot of land into a flourishing field of leeks, selling enough to pay for luxuries like fish and meat for his wife and four children. He even had money left over to buy an electric scooter.

Now Xu is once again struggling to pay for basic necessities like food and medicine. The economic slowdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic has hurt his income, and severe flooding has devastated his crops.

“We are poor, poor people,” Xu, 48, said in a recent telephone interview from his home in Wangjiaba, a village of 36,000 in Anhui province. “We don’t eat meat anymore.”

China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, is expected to declare victory in the next two months in a campaign to eliminate extreme poverty in the country. The Chinese economy is once again gaining strength, and the Communist Party’s achievements in reducing poverty are expected to feature prominently this week at a conclave of party leaders in Beijing.

Four decades of fast economic growth lifted most people in China out of poverty, and the Communist Party has vowed to help those who remain at the bottom. Xi’s anti-poverty drive is focused on around 5 million people who earn less than 92 cents a day, down from nearly 56 million five years ago.

Vowing to “leave no one behind,” Xi has traveled to hard-hit areas like Wangjiaba to reiterate his commitment.

But the pandemic has exposed the party’s shortcomings in providing its most vulnerable citizens with more than the barest of social safeguards, especially in rural areas. And some experts warn that the government’s response to the crisis — favoring infrastructure spending and tax breaks for companies instead of direct aid for families — may widen China’s gap between rich and poor, which is already among the highest in the world.

While wealthier workers have largely kept their jobs and assets during the pandemic, millions of people on low incomes are working fewer hours at lower pay, depleting savings and taking out loans to survive.

“Our society is not fair,” said Jike Erge, 27, a construction worker from the southwestern province of Sichuan. “My dream is to be rich, but I don’t know if it can be realized. A stable income and job are impossible.”

Jike did not work in the first half of the year because of lockdowns related to the coronavirus. In August, he endured another crisis when severe floods destroyed his home, valued at about $15,000, which he had just finished building. He said he had not received compensation from the government for his losses from the floods, which affected tens of millions of people across China and were the worst in decades.

“We work outside for four seasons a year, but we have no savings,” Jike said. After the epidemic and the floods, he said, “we couldn’t be poorer.”

Xi told a United Nations meeting recently that China was “undaunted by the strike of COVID-19” and would meet its poverty targets on schedule. He has mobilized millions of officials and spent billions of dollars to meet his goal, a politically important milestone for the party before the centenary of its founding next year.

Chinese experts say the strength of the government’s monitoring system will ensure that people stay on a path to prosperity. Local officials, who face the threat of punishment if they do not meet Xi’s targets, maintain detailed lists of the income levels of poor residents and hand out subsidies, housing and loans to push them above the poverty line.

“Any groups of people who are below the standard are put into a file and recorded,” Li Xiaoyun, a scholar at China Agricultural University in Beijing who is an adviser to the government on poverty programs, said in an interview. “Every village knows.”

Yet the response to the pandemic has exacerbated many long-standing problems in the countryside.

China has for decades treated rural people as second-class citizens, limiting their access to high-quality health care, education and other benefits under the strict Mao-era household registration system by keeping them from moving to the cities. More than 40% of the population — about 600 million people — lived on less than $5 a day last year, according to government statistics.

China’s early efforts to fight the spread of COVID-19, including lengthy lockdowns across broad areas of the country, left rural residents stranded hundreds of miles from the factories where they work. Many were unemployed for months. Their children also fell behind, lacking the internet connections or hardware to take part in online classes.

A recent study by Stanford University’s Rural Education Action Program found that incomes fell severely among rural workers during the peak of China’s outbreak in February and March. Rural residents reported losing about one-fifth of their income in those two months alone, at the same time that food prices and living costs were rising.

The central government has done little to address the pressures facing rural workers during the pandemic, the Stanford study found. The government has directed much of its aid to businesses in urban areas.

With the economy still slow in many parts of China, rural residents say they are frustrated that the government is not doing more to help improve their financial situation.

Zhou Caijuan, a kiwi seller in the northwestern province of Shaanxi, said that her income had fallen sharply during the pandemic and that she was struggling to pay back tens of thousands of dollars in debt. She said officials seemed more concerned with collecting data and taking propaganda photos than helping her thrive.

“What are you doing for the people?” she recently wrote on Weibo, a social media platform. “All day you’re calculating incomes and not thinking first about how to help poor farmers sell kiwis.”

Zhou said in an interview she was exhausted by filling out paperwork and answering questions when officials visit her farm twice a month.

“I’m just very annoyed by being poor,” she said, adding that the promise of poverty-relief programs often did not match the reality. “‘Poverty alleviation’ is just a gorgeous fur coat,” she said.

Many people on low incomes say they are arbitrarily excluded from government aid despite living in difficult circumstances.

“They could easily fall into poverty and face various deprivations,” said Gao Qin, a Columbia University professor who studies China’s social welfare system.

As with any government initiative with heavy spending, authorities also routinely report cases of bribery, embezzlement and favoritism in doling out funds, drawing calls for stricter oversight. It is also unclear whether efforts to fight poverty — such as programs to help poor people sell fruits, vegetables and clothing online — will endure after Xi meets his goal.

Xi faces questions within the party about “the extent to which this poverty elimination campaign is now for real, given the enormous assault that’s happened on disposable income,” said Kevin Rudd, a former prime minister of Australia who maintains close ties to Chinese officials. He cited the impact of the pandemic and trade tensions with the United States in holding back economic growth.

“Many people are wondering, ‘Do I have a job? Has my business gone bust? And how do I feel about my future?’” Rudd said.

Two months after Xi’s visit, farmers of Wangjiaba say the aid provided by the government, including onetime subsidies of about $300 and packets of seeds, has not been enough to offset their economic losses.

Xu estimates that he lost at least $3,000 worth of crops in the floods, and more because of the economic slowdown during the pandemic. With fruit and vegetables still scarce in his village, he says he will have to spend at least $1,500 more on food this year than he had expected. He plans to sell his sheep this winter and grow other crops to make a living.

“Even if you aren’t out of poverty, the country will say you’re out of poverty,” he said. “That’s the way it is.”

©2019 New York Times News Service