China’s success in ‘lifting millions out of poverty’ has attained much international acclaim. The figures bandied about vary, but the World Bank has estimated that 850 million exited from extreme poverty (existing on less than US$1.90/day in 2011 purchasing price parity terms) between 1981 and 2015. And President Xi Jinping has set a goal of obliterating poverty altogether in China by 2020.
But several caveats are in order. First, it is principally just in the countryside that incomes have increased. Besides, while government policies prepared the ground – by permitting farmers to market their output, (which had been banned under Mao Zedong [1949–1976]) and allowing growers to plant the produce they chose – it was industrious cultivators themselves with their energy and ingenuity rather than the state that elevated living standards.
Another cause for caution is that the concept ‘out of poverty’ requires clarification. The term implies only that the no-longer-impoverished have risen above the official poverty line (2,300 yuan annually, equivalent to about US$334), not necessarily that their lives have become materially comfortable, and many are still quite poor. Moreover, they subsist in danger of slipping back down into indigence for want of affordable health care and workable opportunities to enhance their skills, knowledge and abilities.