LIANGSHAN, China (Reuters) - President Xi Jinping beamed down benevolently from a poster in the new flat of unemployed Jigu Gatie, provided by the Chinese government as part of efforts to tackle poverty nationwide.
The posters urging residents to listen, follow and “be grateful” to China’s ruling Communist Party were common in the homes of the new state housing project visited by Reuters in September during a government-organised trip to the southwestern Sichuan province.
China vowed in 2013 to eradicate extreme rural poverty by the end of this year, and spent 524 billion yuan ($77.17 billion) between 2016 and 2020 to that end, official data showed. China’s economy was hit by the coronavirus pandemic early this year but has since seen a steady recovery.
“Thanks to the party, thanks to the government, thanks to General Secretary Xi,” said Jigu, a member of the generally poor Yi ethnic minority. “I’m very satisfied.”
With over 90 million rural people lifted from extreme poverty over the past seven years, the government says it is on track to achieve its 2020 goal.
But the success could falter if authorities shift priorities after declaring victory on rural poverty, analysts say.
“Once poverty alleviation is no longer a political priority, if funding from the government and state-owned enterprises dries up, many will fall back into poverty,” said Alfred Wu, associate professor at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.
The government has said China will continue anti-poverty policies after 2020 but has yet to make an announcement.
A State Council official said the government was “rushing to come up with transitional policies.”
Jigu, in his 60s, moved into his new flat in the Liangshan region last year. A message reading “gifted by the Sichuanese party and government” on the chairs and wardrobe of his apartment remind him to be grateful each day.
The Sichuan government has invested 77.5 billion yuan to move 1.36 million villagers into new homes within the province, a policy replicated around China.
Under the scheme in Sichuan, each household in the province pays 2,500 yuan per person to secure a new concrete apartment or house, complete with hot showers and cooking gas - an upgrade from the leaky and windowless shacks many of them came from.
China’s poverty alleviation programmes heavily rely on fiscal funding and civil servants for implementation, analysts say, raising questions about their sustainability.
“With the political pressure of meeting the poverty target no longer hanging over them, and with other pressing needs to pay for social programmes that would benefit the wider community, local governments would be hard-pressed to devote already-tight budgets to the absolute poor post-2020,” said Wang Jun, chief economist at lender Zhongyuan Bank.
In addition to funding, the party has encouraged civil servants and party members to “volunteer” to tackle poverty in poor villages.
Some 58,000 civil servants have been mobilised in Sichuan province, with each assigned one household to bring out of destitution.
When the mission is accomplished, every poor villager should subsist above the 2020 national poverty line of around 4,000 yuan ($589) per year, official Dong Jiaqi said on the trip. That is less than half the 10,000 yuan monthly average earned by residents of the capital Beijing.
The number of registered rural poor in China has fallen to 5.51 million in 2020 from 98.99 million in 2012, said Dong.
But the so-called hardship postings can be challenging, with one Liangshan official saying some workers had been killed in car crashes on treacherous mountain roads, and another saying he hadn’t seen his family for a long time.
“Fighting poverty takes up so much of my energy that I haven’t seen my parents in two years,” the second official said.
Villagers moved by the government are offered night school classes, taught job skills and matched with jobs in richer regions.
After relocating from village houses in harsh living conditions to housing projects, 500,000 poor people in Sichuan found jobs in farming or in animal rearing, 200,000 were employed outside the province and 100,000 found jobs near their new homes, Sichuan governor Yin Li has said.
But government-funded social enterprises visited by Reuters on the trip showed just how reliant the poor remain on the government.
At a state-owned apple farm in Liangshan, one manager said employees were guaranteed a certain amount of proceeds from the farm for the first three years and secure employment. But he declined to say if the farm was profitable or when it may break even.
Nearby, poor women who sewed ethnic motif on socks at an embroidery workshop were secured steady income thanks to the government which buys “any number of socks they can sew,” said the workshop supervisor.
Jigu is living with his son, who was given a job after relocating, and is making the most of their new circumstances. He said he does not miss having to build a fire to cook or depending on the uncertainties of farming to eat.
“Here, I can eat anything, anytime I want,” he said. “Life is better now.”
($1 = 6.7898 Chinese yuan)
Reporting by Yew Lun Tian; Editing by Ryan Woo and Ana Nicolaci da Costa
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