Teach a Man to Fish…

China’s success story at lifting people out of poverty presents absolutely boggling figures. Between 1981 and 2004, the number of people in China below the poverty line fell by five hundred million. Key counties added three million hectares of new farmland, and rural phone connectivity (a vital issue in integrating communities), increased from 52.6 to 91.2%. In fact, China became the first nation on the planet to meet the United Nations Millennium Development Goal of halving its local poverty rate.

But there’s local and then there’s local. As reported in Kun Yan’s book, Poverty Alleviation in China, China’s own statistics bureau reported some odd data that didn’t play along with the general upward curve. Despite all efforts at improvement, there were parts of the country that actually got worse off. In “the western regions” – a term that carries with it a certain set of unintended historical assumptions, poverty increased from 61 to 66% in the first decade of the 21st century. Specifically, poverty was on the rise in the eight Chinese provinces that had the most ethnic minorities, particularly Guizhou, Yunnan and Gansu.

The policy wonks of the People’s Republic aren’t idiots – they know that a huge chunk of this is born from the lack of a level playing field. True enough, there have been some Party think-tanks that have advised wiping the slate clean, deleting the “racial” box from people’s ID cards, and declaring that everybody is just “Chinese” now. But such a move doesn’t dispel huge issues in inequality of opportunity, many of which pre-date the People’s Republic itself. Hill tribes like the Kam and Yi live in inhospitable terrain because they were forced there centuries ago. Some even struggle to speak standard Mandarin, which only the younger generations can even read. You won’t magically make them rich by telling them they’re not “minorities” any more.

There have been attempts to positively discriminate in favour of China’s 55 ethnic minorities. I have heard several Han-majority urban undergraduates expressing their annoyance at the “easy ride” that some minorities get with massaged exam grades. That’s how they see it, of course – but I’ve also encountered minority students whose first ever sight of a train station was the day they travelled 25 hours, to their first sighting of a city, to begin their studies; including one colleague of mine whose parents sold their last geese to pay his fare. For such people, what Pierre Bourdieu calls the habitus required to fit into a college environment must be almost insurmountable. Which is why it should come as no surprise when Yan reports her most shocking statistic – that one of the causes of modern Chinese poverty is the cost of education itself, with some families literally driven back into penury by the expense of pinning all their hopes on whichever one of their kids looks Most Likely to Succeed.

A large part of her book deals with the scrum of early 21st century theorists who have piled into to the lucrative field of talking about all this. In the case of the book under review, for example, a cover price of more than £85 means a poverty-stricken family in Inner Mongolia, saving half their annual household income, would take sixteen years to afford a copy. There’s Zhou (2009) who has a five-point plan, and Zhao (2006) who has a six-point plan, and Li (2007) who thinks land reform is the answer, and many more. All have their own peccadillos and strength, largely based on the precise kind of place where they have been conducting their fieldwork. Because, of course, in a country of 1.4 billion people there cannot possibly be a single solution that fits all.

Yan outlines the basic models of poverty relief that have achieved the greatest success in China. These include financial aid (giving your man the money for a fishing rod); microfinance (lending him the money for a fishing rod); industrial development (making sure there are fish in the lake); education (teaching him a better way to fish); science and technology (giving him a job at a fish farm); and systemisation (involving his whole village in a fishing scheme, and making sure they have electrification for freezers and roads for trucks to sell the surplus on). Two models are the ones that seem the most controversial to outsiders: migration (moving him to a lake, even if it’s hundreds of miles away), and the final one, which tellingly seems to lack a Latinate, posh-sounding English translation: “relief for work”.

“Relief for work” gives “unskilled labourers short-term employment opportunities.” It’s here, one suspects, that we see the origins of the draconian schemes that have led the overseas media to start using “poverty alleviation” not as an earnest international desire to lift people out of dire straits, but as a pejorative term – taking your man out of his home and putting him to work in a fishing-rod factory in the middle of the desert, whether he likes it or not. But now he’s earning £10 a day, and he isn’t “poor” any more.

She also discusses “village-wise” advancement, a rather traditional call-back to the specialist communities of the early modern Chinese economy, in which a whole community will agree on a point that they can all focus on and do really well. I believe I have seen some of these up close, in the unexpected world of tourism, where remote communities rebrand themselves as little cultural time capsules, preserving local traditions and becoming living museums or glorified tribal theme parks – the video store tucked away in an alley, while the main street focuses on traditional arts and crafts, and re-enactments of festivals. Tourist dollars, famously, are spent three times – eat in the local restaurant, and you aren’t just paying the owners; you are also paying the local suppliers who supply them, and whatever they decide to spend their wages on locally. The drawback here, of course, is that not every desert village can be a Silk Road experience, and not every desert villager wants to be a belly dancer or a grape tramper.

Alleviating poverty in rural areas isn’t just about simple charity or helping people earn enough money to become tax-payers and net contributors. It’s about reducing public order and infrastructure issues in China’s cities, which otherwise get crowded out with hordes of illegal migrant labourers, coming to seek their fortunes. Huge initiatives like the “Belt and Road” don’t merely create opportunities in remote cities like Urumqi, they help keep the people of Urumqi from being tempted to migrate to, say, Shanghai.

Chi Fulin, who readers of my books on China will know I regard as a persuasive and interesting thinker on China’s future, is quoted here on the changing nature of “poverty”. Just as the poverty line is adjusted ever upwards to reflect inflation, the issues faced, and hence the remedies required, are themselves constantly changing. Back in the past, he writes, the big issue was lack of basic living conditions. Today, with this issue resolved for millions of Chinese, they now face the next hurdle – overcoming inadequate public services. He doesn’t quite go so far as to say that adequate public services should be a “human right” – but he certainly advises the state to consider that equality of opportunity comes with schooling, medical care, bus services and power grids.

Yan’s book is part of a “Research Series on the Chinese Dream” and hence comes couched in the carefully worded optimism of Party planning. As I have found out to my cost on occasion, the slightest whiff of criticism, even constructive, can lead to ructions – so she is careful to only analyse those targets that we might call historically safe. She discusses a history of “Poverty Alleviation with Chinese Characteristics”, talking through the changes in the nature of both poverty and its relief over the decades since 1978 – it would, presumably, be inadvisable for her to grapple in any meaningful way with the colossal upheavals preceding that date, not the least because it would double the size of the book. By the 1990s, state initiatives are concentrating on the basic requirements of “food and clothing” for impoverished regions. She provides solid statistics and a narrative of the changing face of the phenomenon, and by the 2000s, she is dealing with new issues, such as the precarious knife-edge of reporting a “success” – up to 30% of those people who are reported as being lifted out of poverty might fall back into it the following year. One of the biggest threats, she observes four years ahead of COVID-19, is “natural disasters”, which can play havoc with schemes that assume the infrastructures will remain stable.

Yan shrewdly concentrates some of her criticism into a comparative chapter that investigates the effects of similar schemes in other countries – although it’s rather obvious here when she is happy to deal with, say, United States schemes in the early 20th century, long before the magical 1978 cut-off point for her home study. She critiques inadequate fiscal decentralisation policies in Vietnam, and low returns on investments in Ghana, and hopes the Chinese can learn from such stories before they need to be pointed out to them at home. However, she does point out several areas of potential failure within the Chinese system, as well as some structural considerations that will have to be addressed before the state can achieve all its goals.

Her final chapter outlines her own suggestions for policy reforms, all of which seem smart and well-argued – county-level admin, in order to ensure that local solutions are locally relevant; diversification of remedies, so that we don’t end up with nothing but guys who can fish, in a world where nobody wants any more fish. She is a flag-waver for the Mexican healthcare system, which favours the poor in a way that the Chinese system is not currently designed to do. There’s a wish-list of investments, although it’s easy to say “more money for everything” – her contribution is far more relevant to the ways in which she thinks the money should be spent.

Tucked away in the back of the book are ten case studies of poverty alleviation programmes all over China. This includes throwing money at Yunnan; a training programme in Chongqing designed to give unskilled labourers a skill to sell; a “village-wise” scheme in Gansu that utilised unglamorous but effective measures like simply building a road to the village; training schemes in Guizhou and Shandong designed to make better farmers of all the locals; targeted loans in Shaanxi, and a dairy farm start-up in Hebei.

A chapter on statistical models makes Yan’s personal case, that far too much analysis of the problem is made in trite analogies like “teach a man to fish”, whereas she has some eye-crossing equations that she thinks will make a truly quantitative analysis possible. While I would not dare to disagree with a statistician plotting in her area of expertise, I would point out that at the sharp end of these projections and policies are real human beings, and discussion of their quality of life, both before and after intervention, is surely also a crucial matter, just as much as their contribution to the overall “China Dream.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. Kun Yan’s Poverty Alleviation in China: A Theoretical and Empirical Study is published by Springer.

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