On Sunday, the world marked the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty as bold new statistics exposed nations that failed miserably in raising the living standards of their populations.
China rose to the top of the ladder in alleviating poverty while Hong Kong, treated separately from the Chinese mainland, scored 20.4 percent living below the $1.90-a-day base line, according to a World Bank report. The lowest was Sudan, with 82.3 percent.
The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government refuted the World Bank figures, saying this was before the intervention of government handouts, which lifted 400,000 people out of poverty and brought the number to 15.8 percent. The effects of COVID-19 on the poverty situation are unknown since the Commission on Poverty has not updated its information since 2019. However, the Hong Kong Council of Social Service said more than 359,900 — or 17.1 percent — of economically active households were suffering from unemployment or underemployment in the third quarter of last year. According to the Census and Statistics Department, the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in Hong Kong rose to a 16-year high of 7.2 percent in the December-through-February period. Since then, the number of unemployed people in the city has fallen from 261,600 to 187,700 for the June-through-August period. Hong Kong government figures indicate that people from poor households accounted for 45.5 percent of the total unemployed population — an 8.8 percent increase from the same period in 2019. More than half (57,300 people) of those have been unemployed for over three months, and more than 20 percent for over half a year.
Hong Kong bases its poverty line on household income. For example, a one-person household with an income below HK$4,500 ($580) to a six-person-plus household earning HK$23,000 are the thresholds for low poverty. A government report to the Legislative Council in June said the poverty alleviation impact of recurrent cash policies in 2019 was a record high since the poverty line was established in 2013 and had successfully lifted 392,900 people out of poverty and reduced the poverty rate by 5.6 percentage points (compared to 382,200 persons and 5.5 percentage points respectively in 2018).
However, the NGO Oxfam believes that only a quarter of those who were poor and unemployed received unemployment assistance; the remaining three-quarters did not receive support through the Comprehensive Social Security Allowance Scheme. It added that 67,400 more people are now poor and unemployed — 1.6 times more than in the second quarter of last year.
Poverty is defined by China as anyone in rural areas earning less than about $2.30 a day (adjusted for inflation). It was fixed in 2010 and looks at income, living conditions, healthcare and education. It is slightly higher than the World Bank maxim of $1.90 per day. In 1990, there were about 750 million Chinese people living below the international poverty line — about two-thirds of the population. By 2012, that had fallen to fewer than 90 million; by 2016, it had fallen to 7.2 million people (0.5 percent of the population).
Earlier this year, President Xi Jinping declared that China had eliminated absolute poverty. Poverty has always been among Xi’s signature campaigns, and since he took power in 2012, more than 100 million people in rural areas have been lifted out of poverty. Xi called it a “miracle for mankind” and a “complete victory”. According to the US-based Diplomat magazine, China spent more than $80 billion to end poverty, and the campaign entailed dispatching 775,000 cadres to survey all rural families to determine which households were living in poverty.
Hong Kong broadcaster TVB has produced an excellent 12-part series, No Poverty Land, chronicling the alleviation of poverty in remote areas in six provincial-level regions. Conservationist and veteran journalist Janis Chan Pui-yee hosted the show, and with a crew of four, she spent three months trekking through hostile terrain to reach the remote villages. To access some villages, they had to scale a 2,556-step ladder up a sheer mountain to a “cliff village” in Sichuan province’s Liangshan Yi autonomous prefecture, and crossed raging ravines by zip lines — a daily occurrence for the locals, including schoolchildren. The reports include the government’s building of resettlement villages to house displaced villagers with decent houses rent-free, complete with a water and electricity supply. The filming took place in Hainan, Guizhou, Yunnan and Sichuan provinces, and the Guangxi Zhuang and Ningxia Hui autonomous regions. The team described the poverty alleviation in those areas as “a miracle”, a success achieved through years of hard work by people and governments.
The inspiration for the show came from the experiences of TVB News and Information Services Director Wong Shuk-ming in Ningxia and Guizhou. She was astounded by the roads built on treacherous mountainous terrain, and felt that the people in Hong Kong should see these to understand the changes in the country. During their trips, the team was also impressed by the environmental protection work in the villages and the efficient online shopping available in the communities. Wong said they will shoot more TV shows centered on the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25) for National Economic and Social Development to tell residents in Hong Kong where they can find opportunities.
No Poverty Land depicts beautifully terraced landscapes in the rural areas, as well as the scorching desert areas. It summed up the alleviation programs covering education, agriculture training, communication, and housing.
Education is the next priority in eradicating poverty, which is also the case in Hong Kong. The Ohio-based Borgen Report says the COVID-19 pandemic may have increased China’s rural-urban education gap. Only 50 percent of students in rural regions have undisrupted access to online classes, with one-third of those students completely cut off from learning. The issue stems from households lacking computers and strong internet connections — a problem that hits rural children the hardest.
Internet user penetration in rural China reached 55.9 percent of the population in December, up from 46.2 percent in March 2020, according to the China Internet Network Information Center. However, these gains still lagged behind urban China, where internet user penetration was nearly 80 percent in December.
Rural education in China has seen major improvements and has gained measurably when it comes to facilities, equipment and teacher quality. The country has invested heavily in improving the infrastructure of rural schools and attracting teachers by offering better salaries, according to the Ministry of Education. The ministry said that central and local governments invested 542.6 billion yuan ($84.9 billion) from 2013 to 2018 in building and renovating school buildings and buying teaching tools.
With greater technology available, the government has connected all newly built rural villages with internet facilities for education and vocational training, and general communication with the rest of the world.
The author is a former chief information officer of the Hong Kong government, a media consultant and a veteran journalist.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.