Ending poverty in China: Lessons for other countries and the challenges still ahead

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This blog is the first piece of a series produced to commemorate End Poverty Day (October 17), focusing on China – which has contributed more than any other country to global poverty reduction – and its efforts to end extreme poverty by 2020.   
photo: Wenyong Li/World Bank
China’s success in poverty reduction has attracted worldwide attention. In 1982, China launched the “Sanxi Program” in the poorest regions in Gansu and Ningxia, marking the beginning of planned, organized and large-scale poverty alleviation efforts nationwide. In 1986, the government established the State Council Leading Group of Poverty Alleviation and Development, identified poor counties, set a national poverty line, and created special funds for poverty alleviation. In 1994, China launched the Seven-Year Priority Poverty Alleviation Program that was designed to lift 80 million people out of absolute poverty within seven years from 1994 to 2000. In 2001 and 2011, two ten-year poverty alleviation programs were launched to continue the war against poverty. During those three decades, the number of poor people fell sharply, and living conditions and access to public services improved markedly in the poorer regions.
Between 1978 and 2010, the number of poor people in China fell from 250 million to 26.88 million measured with the 1986 official poverty line. Measured with the 2011 poverty line, the number of poor people fell from 165.67 million in 1978 to 55.75 million in 2015. Between 1981 and 2011, the global poor population fell from 1,938 million to 1,011 million measured at US$1.25 a day, with 927 million people lifted out of poverty. In the same period, the number of poor people in China fell from 838 million to 84.17 million, with 753 million people lifted out of poverty.
China became the first developing country to achieve the first Millennium Development Goal of halving poverty. Between 1990 and 2011, China lifted 439 million poor people out of poverty, contributing significantly to global poverty reduction. With continuous increase in grain production for 11 years since 2004, China has been able to feed nearly 20% of the world’s population with less than 10% of world’s cultivated land.
In the same period, per capita incomes among rural farmers increased rapidly. Since 2001, per capita rural net incomes in poverty-stricken counties have increased faster than the national average. Rural infrastructure and public services have improved markedly, including electrification, universal access to compulsory education, rural minimum living standards guarantee scheme, and new rural cooperative medical care.  
The country’s poverty reduction offers lessons for other countries. China has carried out poverty reduction in a globalized context, driven by fast economic growth and focused on building poor people’s capacity for self-development. Its approach combines government leadership and support from all social sectors with farmers playing a major role, and integrates general and special favorable policies, poverty alleviation programs and social safety nets.
China’s experience in poverty alleviation entails:  
  1. Continuous reform and innovation; sustained and steady economic growth with policies favoring poor regions and poor people.
  2. Integrating poverty alleviation into the national development strategy, and organizing large-scale poverty alleviation programs with targeted programs for women, children, disabled people and ethnic minorities;
  3. Adopting a development-oriented poverty alleviation approach that focuses on development as the fundamental way to get out of poverty, and building poor people’s capacity to help themselves.
  4. Pursuing a strategy of balanced urban and rural economic-social development, getting industry to support agriculture and cities to support rural areas.         
  5. Developing infrastructure, including roads, water and sanitation, electrification, natural gas supply and housing.
  6. Mobilizing all resources for poverty reduction, including both public and private sectors.
  7. Integrating general and special favorable policies, development-oriented poverty alleviation and social safety nets. 
In the next five years, China, as the biggest developing country in the world, is entering a critical stage of its efforts to build a well-off society, and facing a number of new challenges in poverty reduction.
By the end of 2015, 55.75 million Chinese people lived in poverty, equivalent to the population of a medium-sized country. The nation still has 14 poor regions, 832 poor counties, and 128,000 poor villages. It will be a hard task to help the remaining poor, as they live in deep poverty and lack self-development capacity. And it will become increasingly difficult and costly. But there is no time to loose. To eliminate extreme poverty by 2020, 10 million people have to be lifted out of poverty each year for the next four years. Their vulnerability means that they are very likely to fall back into poverty due to disaster, illness, and education and housing costs.     
China also faces many new problems, such as economic slowdown and industrial restructuring, inadequate targeting mechanism, poorly defined responsibilities, inefficient allocation and use of resources, and lack of effective policy coordination among poverty alleviation, rural minimum living standards guarantee, new rural cooperative medical care, medical assistance, dilapidated housing rehabilitation and education assistance, and lack of adaptation to local conditions and specific guidance.    
The government has set a target to lift all rural poor people and poor counties out of poverty by 2020 during the 13 th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020), as part of the goal to build a well-off society. In November 2015, it released the decision on winning the fight against poverty, providing a roadmap for poverty reduction and calling for mobilization of all resources to win the anti-poverty war.
In the next five years, China will pursue targeted poverty alleviation policies and strive to reduce poverty through development of industries, labor migration, relocation, and minimum living standards guarantee scheme. The government will increase fiscal spending and financial support, strengthen land policy, mobilize private resources, and create a favorable environment. It also focuses on defining poverty alleviation responsibilities of governments at all levels, developing a rigorous monitoring and evaluation system, and establishing an exit mechanism for poor counties.
By taking these and other actions, China is working hard to achieve its goal of eliminating extreme poverty by 2020.  


Chengwei Huang

Director of the National Poverty Alleviation Training and Communication Center, State Council Leading Group Office for Poverty Alleviation and Development, China

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