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Picture: DAVID HARRISON
Picture: DAVID HARRISON

Chinese philosopher Confucius once said: “The three main responsibilities of government are to provide enough food, sufficient military equipment and maintain the confidence of the people in the ruler.” When asked of the order of importance, he said military equipment could be abandoned first, then food, but never confidence in the ruler. From his perspective the people's assurance in the ruler is the very foundation of the state, without which it cannot exist.

Thousands of years after Confucius these remain some of the key principles that influence the Chinese government administration. China’s ability to take about 770-million citizens out of extreme poverty between 1978 and 2013 shows the conviction of the country’s leadership that providing a decent living is core to retaining the trust of citizens.

There is more to this story though. By 2014 there were still about 100-million Chinese citizens who had been left behind and were still living in absolute poverty, defined as surviving on less than $1.69 per day. President Xi Jinping then introduced the Targeted Poverty Alleviation (TPA) programme, which fulfilled the original objective.

The TPA ran from 2014 to 2020. It is crucial to highlight that China's poverty line is lower than the World Bank’s $1.90 per day, since the dollar has greater buying power in China than in other countries. If the local policy-makers want to reduce domestic levels of extreme poverty it would clearly be useful for them to study the Chinese experience.

From Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping

It is widely understood that Mao Zedong laid the foundations for much of China's broad-based economic progress. His controversial land reforms, broad literacy campaigns and health reforms resulted in higher productivity and inclusive economic growth, especially during the years after his reign.

When Deng Xiaoping became president in 1978 he focused on improving the country's productive capacity by reducing government price controls and encouraging foreign investment. These reforms were also successful, and were enjoyed beyond his tenure.

As a result, from 1978 to 2017 the Chinese economy grew at an average rate of 9.5% per year. The number of people living in abject poverty dropped from about 770-million (80% of the population at that time) to 100-million in 2014 (7% of the population at the time).

To solidify the citizens’ trust in its leadership the Chinese government went on to introduce the TPA in 2014, which was aimed at addressing the vulnerable 7%.

Cadre deployment 

In China, political party cadres are not promoted without prior evaluation. More than 3-million cadres were dispatched to participate in the anti-poverty (TPA) campaign. Their duties were to survey citizens, identify those still subject to extreme poverty, reside in the same areas as the poor residents (most of which were decrepit), gain their trust, study the context of localised poverty, prescribe solutions, mobilise resources from government and ensure the resources were applied to sustainably lift the living standards of poor citizens.

The cadres’ performance was evaluated using scorecards that assessed metrics such as income per capita of citizens in their area and proportion of population living in poverty.  

In the SA context the governing party may find it worthwhile to use a similar appraisal system as a basis for promotion. Assuming that the goals of the party are in fact tied to national development, this would translate to progress in the National Development Plan (NDP).  

Funding

The Chinese government made direct expenditures of  $218bn over the course of its poverty alleviation the initiative. In addition, loans of $1.2-trillion were offered to qualifying citizens. This included $61bn in guaranteed micro-credit granted mainly to impoverished women. It is reported that a total of $1.9-trillion was spent during the campaign, more than 15% of China's GDP in 2017 (halfway through the programme). SA would need to first achieve a level of economic growth that can create such fiscal space before committing as much in funding.

Mechanisms

The Chinese government embarked on a quest to provide infrastructure (mostly in rural areas), skills-training, productive equipment, new markets for local products and access to financing (loans, microcredit and subsidies). Poor villagers were capacitated to practice commercial agriculture, manufacture goods and build modern SMEs. 

Citizens in hostile and precarious natural environments such as deserts and remote mountainous areas, where infrastructure and economic development were lacking, were relocated. Some 9.6-million people were relocated to 2.66-million new housing units as part of the initiative.

In the process about 5-million hectares of farmland in poor areas was converted into forests and grasslands and 1.1-million people were employed as forest rangers. Some 23,000 poverty-alleviation afforestation co-operatives were formed. The poverty alleviation campaign was therefore mixed with the need to address pressing issues such as climate change.

Adding to that, new schools were built while existing ones were improved. The National Training Programme brought 17-million teachers into rural areas to upgrade the quality of rural education 

Social assistance was provided in the form of a Minimum Living Guarantee System, known as dibao, in terms of which a subsistence allowance of $814 per year was given to those who qualified. As of 2022, the initiative had about 19-million beneficiaries.

Lessons abound for SA on how government could design its response to domestic poverty. Innovation will be vital, since SA does not have as much capacity to fund anti-poverty projects when compared to China. For example, to encourage rural infrastructural development free or discounted title deeds could be issued to those willing to construct commercial or residential structures.

Rural dwellers could also be urged to engage in export agriculture, which has more rewards than the typical grains. Moreover, secondary schools could be expanded into vocational training centres, where local adults could learn practical income-generating skills.

That said, macroeconomic stability and economic growth are prerequisites for SA to make significant progress in the fight against abject poverty.

• Tutani is a political economy analyst.

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