How I help pull China’s rural poor out of poverty

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640-2As an official charged with tackling deprivation, it falls to me to decide who qualifies for relief and who does not.

Last April, jaded by my career as a video journalist, I volunteered to join an officially sanctioned nationwide poverty reduction program. I was sent to work in Chaoyang, a small village in eastern China’s Anhui province, where I would head up the program’s local branch until 2018.

As a largely agricultural province, Anhui is home to China’s eighth-largest population of people living in poverty. As recently as 2015, this number stood at 3 million people. Fortunately, it has since been cut by about a third thanks to intensive relief efforts.

Like other Chinese provinces, Anhui is expected to pull the entire population out of poverty by 2020. It’s a noble aim, but not easy to define. When we set our target last year, nobody knew for sure where to draw the provincial poverty line, which helps us identify those most in need, incorporate them into our plans, and check them off the list once their conditions improve. Late last year, we finally drew a proper line in the sand, aiming to ensure that all participants in the project earned a minimum of 3,200 yuan (about $470) in individual income per year. In addition, we made it our goal to make sure they had access to safe housing, ample food and clothing, education for their children, and medical care.

Despite defining our terms, it remained difficult to tell who really needed our help. The Chinese government provides state grants and other welfare benefits to citizens listed as “living in poverty.” These benefits include borrower-friendly loans, animal husbandry subsidies, and free solar panel installation at their houses. For many low-income villagers, this actually becomes an incentive to fudge their family incomes, because being classed as poor brings more advantages than subsisting just above the poverty line. Some of those ineligible for state support even petition to government to be added to the poverty list.

Other standards are also difficult to police. Providing food and clothing, alongside access to housing, education, and health care, is a policy best known by the unwieldy political catchphrase “two carefrees and three guarantees.” But how well does a family need to be fed and clothed before they are truly free of worry? How good is “good enough” to guarantee them a roof over their heads, a place in a classroom, or a doctor to call when they are sick? These questions have no absolute answers.

To close the loopholes in the scheme and prevent village governments from falsely declaring farmers free of poverty, state-sanctioned reviews by third-party auditors take place every year. Many auditors are college teachers and students, chosen because people perceive them as highly educated and trustworthy. They come down to the countryside and decide which families should be struck from the list and which should continue to receive welfare.

Next month marks my first anniversary as Chaoyang’s chief. If my experience during the past year has taught me anything, it’s that we must develop the rural Chinese economy if we truly want to relieve poverty in the countryside. At present, working-age villagers travel to the cities to work as soon as they can.

Nominally, Chaoyang has a population of 4,500 people, but in reality it’s what Chinese people call a “hollowed-out village,” abandoned by two-thirds of its residents for most of the year. In 2016, 287 people in Chaoyang received poverty support due to physical or mental disability. Most other villagers are either very young or very old, living off remittances sent home by family members working in the city. Between October and April each year, Chaoyang’s 300 hectares of farmland lie fallow. Nobody is around to work the fields.

When I arrived, my first priority was to bring in investment and create new jobs in the village. The first company to come to Chaoyang under my stewardship was a manufacturer of recreational fishing gear — rods, bait, and so on. The factory they built here quickly hit a snag: Hardly any villagers possessed the necessary skills to run the production line, and I had to pay a couple dozen locals 50 yuan a day to take training classes. I was struck by the irony of being left short of labor deep in the heartland of China’s migrant worker population.

For those caring for school-age children or the elderly, I encouraged the factory managers to be more open to part-time work. At the same time, I have been communicating with leaders of an American charity organization — who, for now, are unwilling to be named publicly — in the hope of securing a 40,000-yuan donation, which will allow 20 of Chaoyang’s 100 primary school students to eat lunch for free from Monday to Friday throughout the school year. This, in turn, means that the children’s guardians won’t have to take unnecessary time off work during the day to take them home and cook for them.

Alongside developing industry, we also aim to regenerate Caoyang’s disused farmland. Last week, we successfully rented our fields to an investor who promises to bring 150 million yuan to the village within three years. Soon, villagers will receive payment not only for leasing their land to the investor, but also for working the fields. To supplement villagers’ incomes further, we will also plant a plum orchard, attracting new revenue streams through picnics, gardening projects, and recreational fruit-picking.

We offer local farmers a number of preferential policies to help them make better lives for themselves. Each farmer is eligible for a 1,000-yuan state grant for every 100 chickens or 2 pigs they raise. In addition, the state pays for solar panels to be installed on the roofs of their houses, allowing them to generate their own electricity and sell any surplus to the national grid. Finally, those who start pig or fish farms are eligible for 50,000 yuan in soft loans that remain interest-free for three years.

Some of my fellow poverty reduction officials worry that flooding the villages with such policies might encourage local people to become overly reliant on the state for their incomes — echoing the “welfare scrounger” argument in certain Western countries. Others question whether official policy reflects what local villagers actually want, and wonder if our poverty alleviation ambitions are excessive. My stance is this: I give every villager the chance to ask for help if they want it. If they don’t take one of the opportunities we provide for them, or if they don’t like what we are trying to accomplish, they are welcome to drop off the poverty reduction list.

Our poverty reduction scheme took a little while to get off the ground, and we only managed to lift 33 people from 11 families above the poverty line by the end of last year. In 2017, however, we have set ourselves a much more ambitious target of 118 people.

What we’re doing in the countryside is dramatically shaping the future of rural China. Recently announced land reforms have investors scrambling for opportunities to lease and develop expansive tracts of countryside. Farmers, meanwhile, are struggling with their new identities as industrial workers on their own ancestral land. There is no quick and easy fix to an issue with as much magnitude as poverty relief in the world’s most populous nation, but I see a day, not too far off, when all rural-dwellers no longer have to live in want.

Editors: Lu Hongyong and Matthew Walsh.