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Counsellor Tang Min Speaks on How to Fight Poverty in an Exclusive Interview

Date: 2020-02-27
 China’s top leadership and relevant government agencies have been reaffirming the commitment to achieving national poverty alleviation target in 2020 on multiple occasions. This goal is now made more difficult by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the damages it has already done.

On 27, Tang Min, Counsellor of the State Council and Vice Chairman of the Youchange China Social Entrepreneur Foundation, talks with a China News Service correspondent about where the government confidence comes from, what challenges are there, and how they can be addressed.

Where does the confidence come from?

Tang notes that eradicating extreme poverty in the whole of China with 1.4 billion people is a first in China’s millennia-old history, but he is fully confident the goal will be realized by the end of this year. There are several reasons.

First, political commitment. On 23 February, President Xi Jinping stressed the importance of achieving this goal at a meeting on pandemic prevention and economic development. He gave specific instructions on how to ensure poor members of the labor force return to their jobs safely or find employment, better coordinate the production and distribution of agricultural and livestock products, and build strong institutions to prevent a relapse into poverty. This is critical support for the national campaign.

Second, a solid foundation. Based on the national standard for rural poverty, 95% of the population had been lifted from poverty by the end of 2019, with 5.51 million lagging behind in the countryside. Most of them live in areas with deep-seated deprivations but a smaller impact of the pandemic. Most areas have secured stable supply of food and clothing and access to compulsory education, basic medical services and safe housing. The social security net for the poor households will not be hit hard by the pandemic.

Third, institutional strengths. China is able to pool national resources to combat poverty. It has a huge domestic market which consumes agricultural and livestock products from the poor areas and households and provides jobs for poor migrant workers.

Fourth, the impact of the pandemic is less severe in the primary and secondary industries than in the service sector; it also hit at the Chinese Spring Festival, which is usually a lull period for production. If agriculture and industry can resume work soon, the impact will be further moderated.

There have been encouraging improvements in the control of COVID-19 in China. Across the country, except in Hubei, the economy is moving faster to reopen and social life is returning. With ten months to go before 2021 comes, there is enough time for China to move towards the goal of building a moderately prosperous society and eradicating extreme poverty.

What are the challenges?

The biggest difficulty is to maintain adequate income levels for poor households and those who have just been lifted from poverty. With some local industries depressed and job-hunting in the cities becoming harder due to the pandemic, their incomes are now under much strain.

Tang cited an example. He chairs a commission for rural invigoration under China Charity Alliance. Last year, they trained over 10,000 young farmers in six provinces who returned from the big cities to their home villages to start their own businesses. Most of them set up rural cooperatives for farming and animal breeding to help villagers increase incomes. A few days ago, Tang and his colleagues engaged some of the chicken farmers on line. They were told that if travel restrictions were to continue for a prolonged period and the market stays weak, their chickens would be starving to death and those villagers working with them would fall back into poverty.

“The poor households are the hardest hit by the pandemic, in addition to those who passed away or got seriously ill. Even before the pandemic, they were already particularly vulnerable because they live in inaccessible villages and do not have the enabling conditions. Especially those struggling near the poverty line; they could be easily drawn back into poverty.”

Some poor areas and populations cannot develop a local capacity to fight poverty, and their chances of going out to work are diminishing. In 2019, the number of migrant workers in China was close to 300 million; many of them are still unable to return to their jobs or get employed.

Tang observes that incomes of these migrant workers can make up over 50% of their household incomes. Their employment status is the decisive factor in their living conditions.

What are the solutions?

Tang believes it is important to find localized solutions to the internal and external difficulties these areas face as a result of the pandemic.

“In supporting business growth in poor areas, the greatest urgency is to build an efficient distribution network.” As various localities institute their own versions of lockdowns, transport is coming back in many parts of the country except Hubei. Local authorities would be well-advised to take steps to support business growth in poor areas at the same time as they stem the spread of the virus. For example, open green corridors for local agricultural produce and set up complaint-handling channels.

Mobilizing societal actors is also helpful. He said, “We are starting a ‘foodies for farmers’ campaign which encourages consumers to buy as their first choice agricultural products from poor areas on the on-line shopping platforms.”

But the products from poor areas and their logistics efficiency are not competitive on the market. Tang hopes the government and non-governmental actors can help to expand their distribution channels to open up some space for these industries.

He also finds it important to reopen businesses at a faster pace so that migrant workers can return to their jobs. Targeted interventions should be made for the SMEs that employ a large number of migrant workers. Businesses that have the required capacity should be incentivized to recruit more migrant workers, especially those from poor areas.

Attention should be given to migrant workers in Hubei who cannot go back to their jobs at the moment. Until the restrictions are lifted, they can be offered online vocational courses and subsidies so that they can develop skills and maintain basic living. Once the pandemic comes to an end, they will be ready to rejoin the workforce.