How to Save Democracy From Technology
Ending Big Tech’s Information Monopoly
Wenfu Zhang has a new home. Located in Bangdong, a remote village in southwest China, it has white concrete walls and a beige tiled floor. On the front door is a paper sign that reads, “Impoverished Household”—evidence that the structure was paid for in part with grants and no-interest loans from the Chinese government. “Three years ago, we didn’t have these nice houses. . . . Now we have good places to live and health care,” says Zhang, a farmer turned construction worker in his early 40s. “Our living standard isn’t so high, but we can eat meat every day.”
Zhang’s house is one tiny part of China’s gargantuan, years-long effort to end poverty. Forty years of economic reforms and growth, and a decade of expanding social welfare programs, have radically improved the living conditions of over 800 million Chinese. But for most of that period, government efforts largely focused on poverty alleviation, not eradication. It wasn’t until 2013 that President Xi Jinping became the country’s first leader to make a specific, measurable, and time-bound goal to end poverty—and by 2020. Since 2015, when the central government adopted that promise as official policy, it has spent over $61 billion on ending poverty, with $20.6 billion more earmarked for 2020. The results are staggering, at least according to the official statistics: the State Council Information Office says China’s poor population decreased from 99 million in 2012 to 5.5 million at the end of 2019.
Now, the Chinese government is set to declare victory. Poverty, it claims, will be eradicated by the end of 2020 despite the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting global economic downturn. That headline will strengthen the political legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) when it celebrates its 100th birthday next year.
But the reality of China’s antipoverty campaign is more complicated. The program is neither a figment of government propaganda nor an unalloyed success. Two things became clear to me after two years spent living side by side with the campaign’s rural beneficiaries: China will indeed have eradicated poverty by its own metrics by the end of this year, and it still has a long way to go to address the growing urban-rural divide.
When the Chinese government uses the catchall term “poverty,” it means extreme rural poverty, not urban privation. Its definition is based on income (the poverty line is set at 4,000 yuan ($590) per person per year), provision of basic needs such as food and clothing, and access to basic medical services, education, and safe housing. The government dispatched over 775,000 officials across China to survey all rural households on these metrics—a feat in itself—to determine if they qualified as impoverished. The paper on Zhang’s front door lists data from this survey, including the number of family members resident in his home, the amount of arable land attached to it, his family’s annual income, the cause of their poverty (“lacks skills”), and a nine-point plan to address their needs. Zhang’s photo and a red fingerprint complete the report.
After the survey, officials paired each impoverished household with a party member tasked with ensuring their rise out of poverty. Beijing also mobilized hundreds of millions of people, dollars, and labor hours as part of a national effort to improve the living standards of these households. Urban residents gifted cooking oil and leveraged personal networks to sell rural farmers’ produce. Some wealthy cities such as Shanghai adopted entire poor regions such as Yunnan, Bangdong’s home province. The party tapped anyone within the expansive state system—civil servants, teachers, state-owned enterprise employees, even tax auditors—to work on the campaign. Health-care workers visited remote areas to do checkups and minor surgeries, and universities sent teams to monitor and evaluate progress. Private companies also participated—garnering favor with officials—by sending executives into the countryside for team-building exercises. Some even sponsored the construction of entirely new villages. At least by government numbers, the campaign has been successful. Only 33 counties across China remain officially “impoverished”—down from roughly 50 at the end of last year.
China will indeed have eradicated poverty by its own metrics by the end of this year.
In Bangdong, the campaign’s effects are obvious. New two- and three-story houses now stand where shabby earthen homes once stood along the village’s one main road—the result of stipends of up to 50,000 yuan ($7,400) and low- or no-interest loans of another 50,000 yuan given to each household to finance the construction. Families also received quarterly payments to raise their income to the poverty line. The local government surveyed soil quality, climate conditions, and elevation to determine suitable cash crops and provided farmers with subsidies to transition away from subsistence agriculture. Weekend trainings even taught local women how to nanny and clean homes to equip them for jobs in big cities. Now, Zhang has his new house; the children of another Bangdong resident, Zongfu Zhang, have free room and board at school; and when a third resident, Zhuheng Liu, fell down a mountainside after a road collapsed, he had health-care coverage and access to hospital care, neither of which he would have had five years ago.
The government has also invested heavily in infrastructure as part of its antipoverty campaign. Just 12 years ago, more than 40 percent of Yunnan’s rural population had no direct access to a paved road. In 2017, workers paved Bangdong’s first street. By 2019, they had modernized all of the town’s remaining roads. Nearby, a new highway tunnels through the mountains that once isolated the town, and a half-built bridge straddles the Mekong River. These improvements give residents access to cash-crop markets, health care, and education.
China’s drive to end poverty has paid off politically. Local Chinese perceptions of government performance are based largely on “real, measurable changes in individuals’ material well-being,” according to a recent study from Harvard University’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. It is no surprise, then, that the study found the biggest increases in satisfaction with the government in low-income and inland regions such as Bangdong, where poverty eradication efforts are active. Most rural residents attribute their newfound prosperity to the CCP and, specifically, to Xi himself. It was the Chinese leader, after all, who championed the ambitious goal of ending poverty, and it’s his face on the posters that hang above people’s new flat-screen TVs.
By contrast, the issues on which the Western media rightly critique the CCP—internment camps in Xinjiang, Hong Kong’s new security law, growing state surveillance, tightening political and religious regulations—have had little effect on rural perceptions of party performance. Strict government censorship partly explains this, but so does the power of lived experience to shape political opinions. Rural Chinese often dismiss events in Hong Kong or Xinjiang as irrelevant to their lives. In 2018, when a constitutional amendment removed presidential term limits and paved the way for Xi to remain “emperor for life,” the Western media balked. But many in Bangdong relished the news, expecting more benefits. “Twenty years of Xi is better than ten!” said one resident in his new house.
Despite the undeniable progress of recent years, many rural Chinese residents are still desperately poor by the standards of the developed world. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development uses a relative poverty line—defined as half of the median disposable income in a given country—to compare standards across societies. If applied to rural China, the relative poverty line in 2019 was 8,010 yuan ($1200) per person per year, nearly double the CCP’s benchmark. So although extreme poverty might be on its way out, China still has a serious problem. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang recently acknowledged this shortcoming, noting that 600 million Chinese still live on a monthly income of 1,000 yuan ($140). “The government says I’m not poor anymore,” one Bangdong neighbor told me earnestly, “but I still feel poor.”
Despite undeniable progress, many rural Chinese residents are still desperately poor.
Critics of the antipoverty campaign, including some Chinese citizens and Western media outlets, also question forced relocation policies and corruption. The government has moved millions of rural residents away from their remote farmland and into subsidized housing developments closer to roads, schools, and economic centers. A recent National Public Radio report from Shandong Province described villagers left homeless when local authorities demolished their old homes before new government-provided housing could be built. Tragically, one resident drank pesticide out of desperation and died just weeks after the interview. Allegations of land grabs by corrupt officials and shoddily constructed houses and roads fuel further criticism. Locals in a village in southern Yunnan Province, for instance, were unsurprised when a new road slated to be eight meters wide ended up being only five. “Officials must also satisfy their own interests to get things done,” one resident explained.
The real long-term challenge, however, is sustainability. It is unclear whether those lifted out of poverty will be able to maintain their sources of income and access to education, health care, and housing after the campaign ends. “It’s a sixiang wenti,” a mindset issue, one party official explained. “It’s impossible to turn an uneducated person into an entrepreneur.” One Bangdong resident, Dalong Huang, has boxes of unsold tea stacked in his house. Absent any long-term government training, he confessed that he has no sales network or marketing strategy other than waiting for an unknown tea boss to show up. Once China’s campaign nominally succeeds at the end of 2020, what prevents the Huang family from falling back into poverty in 2021?
These long-term problems are exacerbated by hukou and other rural land policies. The hukou, or household registration system, grants different rights to urban and rural residents and prevents the latter from relocating to cities or accessing urban social services such as schools or medical treatment. And while the government has sought to strengthen rural land rights, vague and poorly implemented laws still allow the state to confiscate or readjust land under “special circumstances.” If gains from the antipoverty campaign are to be sustained, the government needs to reform these policies.
A billboard on the road to Zhang’s house reads, “Set your hearts and gather your strength, stand firm to win the war on poverty.” China has made real progress toward eradicating extreme poverty—and the people of Bangdong have much to celebrate: new homes, health care, and education. But these gains are more modest than the government’s rhetoric suggests, and they may not be sustainable. Making them so will require addressing systemic inequalities between rural and urban residents—and that work is just beginning.