Over the last decades, China has achieved a drastic reduction in the number of people living below the poverty line. In 1981, 88% of the population was living below that line. That number now stands at 4%. The poverty line is defined as a person living on less than $1.90 a day, using 2011 $ at purchasing-power parity.
This amazing achievement has been accomplished since the economic restructuring that began in 1978, and has continued uninterrupted since. Per capita annual income has increased from $200 in 1990, to $5,000 in 2010, and has continued to improve.
Poverty reduction occurred in stages. The first stage happened in the rural areas with the introduction by the central government of the Rural Responsibility System which allowed families to produce more than their allocated production quota. The additional production was sold on the open market at market prices.
The second stage was the progressive opening of the Chinese economy to foreign direct investments (FDI) that created a multitude of enterprises geared towards exports, capitalizing on the low cost of labour. This had the impact of creating a large number of unskilled positions that brought many people into well-paying jobs in an urban setting.
*Living below $1.90 a day, using 2011 $ at purchasing-power parity. Source: The Economist
In the early 1990s, the central government privatized small and medium size State Owned Enterprises (SOE’s) removing the rigid constraints of a centrally planned economy and placing these companies in a market economy. Once subjected to the forces of the market, millions of employees were laid-off, but within a few years many more jobs were created due to the innovative needs placed on the new owners.
In parallel, in 2001 China joined the WTO (World Trade Organization), accelerating the economic development of the country. Many more foreign enterprises elected to establish a facility in China, again adding a large number of jobs in an urban setting. By now, local entrepreneurs had also started creating employment opportunities.
By the turn of the century, at least 200 million people had been lifted out of poverty. In the next 10 years, another 200 million people would follow, as the economic expansion continued. By 2014, a total of 700 million people were lifted out of poverty, leaving only 4% in economic difficulties. These last 55 million people are now the focus of the government.
The efforts to continue reducing poverty is one of the key objectives of the government 13th Five-Year Plan period (2016-2020). The goal of the central government is to eradicate poverty by focusing on the 128,000 poor villages and 832 poor counties, predominantly in rural settings, in provinces located away from the coastal zones. In addition to focusing on economic conditions, the government is aiming to increase the quality of education, health services and housing.
The prime strategy to address these challenges is to encourage the development of competitive industries such as tourism and agriculture. In regions with limited economic development potential, residents will be moved. People will be relocated to areas which have greater economic possibilities. In addition, the government will introduce a guaranteed basic living standard for people unable to work.
Tourism features as a key economic tool in Gansu province, which has a GDP per capita at half the national average, and 4 times lower than the leading areas. Source: chinatouristmaps.com
In spite of these successes, different challenges were created as a result of this rapid economic growth. Probably, the greatest social challenge in China is the economic inequality that currently exists. In the 1970s, everyone had roughly the same economic level; more or less everyone was poor. As economic growth accelerated, and the economy moved from a centrally planned to a mixed economy (i.e. a combination of centrally planned and market economy), inequalities emerged. People who had post-secondary education were able to command higher salaries. Entrepreneurs were able to start businesses that rapidly flourished. Others were able to benefit from the privatization of small or medium size SOE’s. These groups of people raced towards reaping the benefits of rapid economic growth while the individuals with no or limited access to these capabilities progressed at a much slower pace.
Another challenge created by the central government relates to the partially deregulated liberty of movement. The Household Registration System (hukou) or similar methods have always been a cornerstone of the Chinese government’s desire to control the internal movement of its citizens. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s people were given the opportunity to relocate but without establishing a permanent residency in their new location. This allowed this floating population of roughly 250 million people to move from rural areas to cities in search of better paid work. As these people did not have the hukou in the city where they worked, their children and at times their spouse had to remain behind. This has created a diaspora across China of broken families that are only reunited for 5 to 14 days, once a year during the Spring Festival (i.e. Chinese New Year) held in January or February.
Both challenges are being addressed by the central government but at a rate that will see these inequalities solved at a slower pace. By 2020, it is quite probable that the poverty issue will have been nearly resolved, but the problems caused by the substantial economic inequalities and the large floating population will probably take longer.