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Commentary: China lifted 850 million people out of poverty but now faces bigger challenges

China created the world's largest middle class by pursuing industrialisation, liberalising the private sector, welcoming foreign investment and embracing global trade, says an expert.

Commentary: China lifted 850 million people out of poverty but now faces bigger challenges

File photo of Chinese workers. (Photo: AFP)

ANN ARBOR, Michigan: This year’s Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences was awarded to Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo, and Michael Kremer for their experimental approach to poverty reduction.

In the Nobel Committee’s view, the economists’ use of randomised controlled trials (RCTs) to test whether specific interventions work – a method adapted from medical sciences – has “considerably improved our ability to fight global poverty”.

READ: Indian-born Nobel prize-winner comes from 'family of economists'

But while some celebrate the recognition of a new way to tackle an old problem, others doubt that “dividing this issue into smaller, more manageable questions”, as the Nobel Committee puts it, can really reduce poverty on a large scale.


Conspicuously missing from this debate is the experience of China, which has accounted for more than 70 per cent of global poverty reduction since the 1980s, the most successful case in modern history.

Over the last four decades, more than 850 million people in China have escaped poverty. As Peking University’s Yao Yang notes, this had “nothing to do with RCTs”, nor did it involve giving handouts to the poor.

Instead, it was the result of rapid national development.

Since Deng Xiaoping launched “reform and opening up” in 1978, China has pursued export-driven industrialisation, liberalised the private sector, welcomed foreign investment, and embraced global trade. As millions of farmers moved from fields to factories, they earned wages, saved, and sent their children to school.

A float carrying a portrait of late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping moves through Tiananmen Square during the 70th founding anniversary of People's Republic of China, Oct 1, 2019. (Photo: REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

This, together with a surge in private entrepreneurship, helped to create the world’s largest middle class.


What Yao fails to acknowledge, however, is that China’s impressive record of poverty reduction has been accompanied by two serious problems: Inequality and corruption.

When President Xi Jinping took office in 2012, China’s Gini coefficient (the standard measure of income inequality, with zero representing maximum equality and one representing maximum inequality) stood at 0.47, higher than in the United Kingdom or the United States.

READ: Commentary: China’s rise this time is different

A Chinese household survey reported an even higher coefficient of 0.61, nearly on par with South Africa.

A rising tide lifts many boats, but some rise far higher than others. So, while millions of Chinese were lifted just above the poverty threshold, a few individuals were catapulted to the heights of opulence.

The skyline of Pudong, the financial district of Shanghai, is pictured on Apr 7, 2018. (Photo: AFP/Johannes Eisele)

This was not only a matter of luck or even entrepreneurial spirit. Although some of China’s wealthy amassed their fortunes through hard work and risk-taking, plenty of others did so by cosying up to government officials willing to trade lucrative privileges for bribes.

Recognising the risks posed by high inequality and pervasive cronyism, Xi has launched two simultaneous campaigns. One vows to eliminate rural poverty by 2020, using “targeted” poverty alleviation measures such as job placements and welfare subsidies.

READ: Commentary: Has China given up on pursuing growth?

Another aims to root out corruption. Under Xi’s leadership, more than 1.5 million officials, including some of the most senior members of the Communist Party of China (CPC), have been disciplined.


China’s experience holds important lessons for development economics.

For starters, while RCTs and the targeted programmes they evaluate can play a role in reducing poverty, the most powerful means of doing so at scale is economic growth. Oxford’s Lant Pritchett found that no country has reached the point where more than 75 per cent of all households lived on more than US$5.50 per day until median income exceeded US$1,045 annually.

READ: Commentary: The invisibility of the poor in Crazy Rich Hong Kong

Given this, anyone interested in large-scale poverty reduction should seek to understand what drives sustained economic growth, by studying history, political economy, international trade, and systems thinking (connecting parts of a development strategy).

If RCTs are equivalent to “plumbing,” as Duflo and Banerjee describe, then systems thinking is the work of mapping out and overhauling the entire drainage network.

Simply put, we cannot lose sight of the big picture.

File photo of rural residents in China doing their washing. China's boom has seen it rise to become the world's second-largest economy, but inequality remains stark. (Photo: AFP / MARK RALSTON) This file photo shows rural residents in China doing their washing. China's boom has seen it rise to become the world's second-largest economy, but inequality remains stark. (Photo: AFP / MARK RALSTON)

The second lesson from China’s development experience is that growth may not always be equitable. Welfare programmes and the delivery of public services like education and healthcare are needed to distribute the gains from economic growth.

Here, the work of this year’s Nobel laureates can help, with RCTs being used to assess the performance of targeted interventions.

READ: Commentary: Chinese leaders must convince others of China’s peaceful rise

Finally, adaptive governance is essential. Contrary to Yao’s argument that China owes its economic success to following “the advice of classical economists”, the country has actually defied many standard policy prescriptions – most notably, the belief that Western-style democratisation is necessary for development.

That does not mean that authoritarian rule enabled Chinese prosperity, as many believe. Under Mao, China suffered disastrous outcomes, including mass famine during the Great Leap Forward.

READ: Commentary: The real reasons for China’s rise

The real secret behind China’s economic dynamism was “directed improvisation”: Local policy experimentation guided by central-government directives.


In a nutshell, the key to poverty eradication is inclusive growth. Achieving it requires a combination of macro policy measures to foster national development and micro-programmes that address specific weaknesses.

Emerging economies must also adapt their development strategies to twenty-first century challenges, particularly technological transformation and climate threats. This calls for a variety of research and tools. There is no silver bullet. 

Yuen Yuen Ang is a professor of political science at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.


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