Across news media outlets and social media platforms, the blitz around China’s poverty alleviation campaign has fixated millions. On 25 February, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced at the National Poverty Alleviation Summary and Commendation Conference that “my country’s poverty alleviation battle has won an overall victory”.
“Shaking off poverty is not the finish line, but the starting point of a new life and new endeavour,” said Xi Jinping.
China claims to have lifted the remaining 98.99 million people from poverty and achieved the goal of “zero poverty” across the country. The campaign is close to Xi Jinping’s heart because “complete” eradication of poverty was a goal he had set after assuming office in 2012.
A hashtag — “all 98.99 million people lifted out of poverty” — was used by state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) on the country’s Twitter-like social media platform Weibo. The hashtag was viewed 18.81 million times. Another hashtag — “China has eliminated absolute poverty” — was viewed 1.74 billion times and received 3,17,000 comments. CCTV has also produced and broadcast a documentary titled “China’s Poverty Reduction Secret”.
On 25 February, Xi Jinping awarded Zhang Guimei, a 63-year-old disabled principal and founder of Huaping Senior High School for Girls. During the event in Beijing, Xi honoured similar figures from across China and declared “complete victory” on poverty.
A campaign of feel-good stories
China’s poverty alleviation strategy is captured by the term “drip irrigation effect”, which is a targeted campaign to elevate a certain household. A Xinhua report took a jab at the traditional trickle-down economics theory by saying, “However, when poverty alleviation is carried out to a certain extent, the “trickle-down” effect will be greatly attenuated, making it difficult to solve the poverty problem completely.”
The poverty alleviation programme comes across as a benign government policy, but a closer examination reveals that it has other implications.
China has relocated over 9.6 million people from villages into newly constructed townships in the last five years, according to Xinhua. The Communist Party doesn’t hide its intention to teach Mandarin to kids in Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture of China under the poverty alleviation campaign. In Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture, families have been moved from their indigenous villages into concrete complexes – making way for state-led development projects.
In 2018, Sina Weibo announced that the company will invest 2 billion yuan for the poverty alleviation campaign. China has sought to use social media platforms to build a consensus by telling “emotional stories” of villagers who can now earn a better living because of the programme.
One of the aspects of poverty alleviation was to improve technology literacy in relatively poor provinces of China. State-run media reported a story of a 71-year-old farmer who had used China’s major video-sharing platforms Kuaishou and Douyin to sell his farm produce. But such an expanded reach of technology could give China a firm grip on surveilling their population in remote regions of the country.
Varied goals, from Tibet to India
China’s poverty alleviation campaign has been applied differently across the provinces to achieve a variety of policy goals.
In Tibet, the poverty alleviation campaign has targeted nomads and farmers with a Xinjiang-style re-education programme that focuses on “removing negative influence of religion”.
Experts researching Tibet have found that the poverty alleviation programme has integrated language that pushes for “ideological education” and “stability in Tibet”.
In September 2020, a German researcher Adrian Zenz found the existence of a mass labour programme in Tibet, established under the poverty alleviation initiative. The report found that 500,000 Tibetans have gone through the training programme. One of the government documents accessed by Zenz encourages Tibetans to transfer their land to state-run cooperatives.
“The average annual net income of poor people in Tibet had risen from 1,499 yuan (about 220.44 U.S. dollars) in 2015 to 9,328 yuan in 2019,” said Wu Yingjie, Communist Party of China chief of Tibet.
In recent days, we have seen images of villagers being moved to the border areas with India. China has built a village for the Tibetan farmers at the trijunction between India, China and Bhutan. Similarly, three such villages built by Tibetan regional administration were discovered in the border area of Arunachal Pradesh. China has claimed that its intention is to resettle the villagers in new townships instead of securing the empty borderland.
A reality check by the BBC confirms that China has been able to drastically reduce poverty over the last 30 years – which is further confirmed by The World Bank data. But Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has acknowledged that there is growing inequality and about 600 million people earned only 1,000 yuan ($154) per month.
The Communist Party of China will celebrate its 100th anniversary this year, which has brought further media attention to the campaign. China wants to tell the world that its “state-led development” has been successful at eradicating poverty but as everything else with China, the reality is more complicated than what it appears on the surface.
The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. Views are personal.