20080225-beggar bucklin.jpg
Beggar in the 1930s
There are three degrees of poverty: 1) extreme, or absolute, poverty defined by the World Bank as a household that gets by on less than $1 a day, not enough to support the basic needs of survival; 2) moderate poverty, defined as living on $1 or $2 a day, where basic needs are met but just barely; and 3) relative poverty, as defined by income below a certain level of the national average.

About 13 percent of China’s population---about 203 million people--- live on less than $1 a day. About 42 percent of China’s population---about 593 million people--- live on less than $2 a day. Most are in the countryside.

Children in textile and garment factories often work 14 hours a day, seven days a week, and sleep by their machines. Boys in Green Mountain City gets paid about 18 cents a load for carrying 55 pound bags of coal up a mountain. Even in the cities, a school teacher with a salary of $50 a month---good by Chinese standards---might have to save for two years to be able to afford a bicycle. Married couples often live apart, sometimes in opposite corners of the country, working at different places. They only time the get to see each other is during holidays, three weeks a year.

The “poverty penalty” is a phenomena in which the poor can pay up to 25 times more certain services such as clean water as the rich.

Good Websites and Sources: Poor in China Earthtrends earthtrends.wri.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; United Nations Development Program undp.org ; Social Issues in China peopledaily.com ; Wikipedia article on Social Issues in China Wikipedia ; Rural Poverty Portal ruralpovertyportal.org : Suicide in China Guardian story guardian.co.uk ; China Daily article chinadaily.com ; Center for Disease Control cdc.gov

Links in this Website: Rural Poor, See Rural Life, Urban Poor, See Urban Life RURAL LIFE IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; VILLAGES IN CHINAFactsanddetails.com/China ; URBAN LIFE IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; MIGRANT WORKERS IN CHINAFactsanddetails.com/China

Rural Poverty in China

Reporting from Luotuowan, a poor village about 180 miles from Beijing, Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times, “The average per capita income here, about $160 a year, is less than half the official threshold for poverty, and it is a tiny fraction of the average urban income of slightly less than $4,000. Most young people have long since fled for jobs in distant cities. The challenge to lift up impoverished backwaters like Luotuowan is a daunting one for the Communist Party. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, January 26, 2013]

In China’s rural hinterland, where half the nation’s 1.3 billion people live, incomes are, on average, less than a third of those in cities. During the 18th Party Congress in November 2012, Chinese leaders pledged to double per-capita incomes by 2020.

China Raise Rural Poverty Line

In November 2011, Associated Press reported: “China has redefined the level at which people in rural areas are considered poor by raising the official poverty line, despite a booming economy. A sharp upward revision in the official poverty line, announced by the government on means that 128 million Chinese in rural areas now qualify as poor, 100 million more than under the previous standard. [Source: Associated Press, November 30, 2011]

The new threshold of about $1 a day is nearly double the previous amount. While the revised poverty line is still below the World Bank threshold of $1.25 a day, the change brings China closer to international norms and better reflects the country's overall higher standards of living after three decades of buoyant growth.

The old limit, first set in the 1990s and increased periodically thereafter, focused on the bedrock poor at a time China was still largely rural and impoverished. As the country has climbed toward middle income status, experts from the World Bank and Chinese think tanks have urged the government to raise the threshold to capture more poor Chinese.

"The previous poverty line underestimated the number of poor people in rural China," the official newspaper China Daily quoted Wang Sangui, a rural development expert at Renmin University, as saying. "Only 2.8 percent of the rural population was officially considered poor, which was lower than in many developed countries such as the United States, which has a poverty rate of about 15 percent." With the higher threshold, more people qualify for government assistance. Funding for poverty relief is also being raised more than 20 percent this year to 27 billion yuan ($4.2 billion), the China Daily reported.

Homes of the Poor in China

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House of the poor in the 1930s

Poor rural families often live in bamboo frame houses or mud-and-straw bricks homes with packed earth floors. Thatch-roof mud-wall houses found in some parts of Sichuan, Hunan and Yunnan provinces look like African huts. Houses with more than two story are rare. Progress and wealth means a family can move out of their mud and stone hut into a concrete house.

A typical rural family of nine in Yunnan Province with a per annual capita income of $364 lives in 600-square-foot house with a living room, 3 bedrooms, kitchen and 5 storage rooms. Peasant houses often have dirt floors, and little furniture other than a table, chairs and makeshift beds. A blackened shed serves as a kitchen. Many have color or black and white televisions.

Describing a mud brick home on the edge of the Gobi desert in poor Gansu province, Sheryl Wudunn wrote in the New York Times Magazine: "The shack had two rooms, each dominated by a kang...The dirt floor was swept clean and the furniture consisted of three rickety wooden chairs set around a crude wooden table, the mud walls were papered with newspapers, with pictures from old calendars providing a bit of color."

See Minorities.

Beijing’s Underground Apartments

In December 2014, NPR reported: “In Beijing, even the tiniest apartment can cost a fortune — after all, with more than 21 million residents, space is limited and demand is high. But it is possible to find more affordable housing. You’ll just have to join an estimated 1 million of the city’s residents and look underground. Below the city’s bustling streets, bomb shelters and storage basements are turned into illegal — but affordable — apartments. [Source: NPR, December 7, 2014 ^|^]

Annette Kim, a professor at the University of Southern California who researches urbanization, spent last year in China’s capital city studying the underground housing market. “Part of why there’s so much underground space is because it’s the official building code to continue to build bomb shelters and basements,” Kim says. “That’s a lot of new, underground space that’s increasing in supply all the time. They’re everywhere.”

But “there’s a stigma to living in basements and bomb shelters, as Kim found when she interviewed residents above ground about their neighbors directly below. “They weren’t sure who was down there,” Kim says. “There is actually very little contact between above ground and below ground, and so there’s this fear of security.” ^|^

“In reality, she says, the underground residents are mostly young migrants who moved from the countryside looking for work in Beijing. “They’re all the service people in the city,” she says. “They’re your waitresses, store clerks, interior designers, tech workers, who just can’t afford a place in the city.” Kim says there’s a range of units, from the dark and dingy to the neatly decorated.

Life in Beijing’s Underground

USC’s Annette Kim told NPR the “apartments go one to three stories below ground. Residents have communal bathrooms and shared kitchens. The tiny, windowless rooms have just enough space to fit a bed.“It’s tight,” Kim says. “But I also lived in Beijing for a year, and the city, in general, is tight.” With an average rent of $70 per month, she says, this is an affordable option for city-dwellers. But living underground is illegal, Kim says, since housing laws changed in 2010. [Source: NPR, December 7, 2014 ^|^]

Beijing-based photographer Chi Yin Sim has documented life under the city in a collection called China’s “Rat Tribe.“ The first basement-dweller she met was a young woman, a pedicurist at a salon, who lived with her boyfriend. The couple lived two floors below a posh Beijing apartment complex. Sim’s photos show just how tiny these units really are. The couple sits on their bed, surrounded by clothes, boxes and a giant teddy bear. There’s hardly any room to move around. “The air is not so good, ventilation is not so good,” Sim says. “And the main complaint that people have is not that they can’t see the sun: It’s that it’s very humid in the summer. So everything that they put out in their rooms gets a bit moldy, because it’s just very damp and dank underground.” ^|^

“Sim says residents adapt to the close quarters. “At dinnertime you can hear people cooking, you can hear people chit-chatting in the next room, you can hear people watching television,” she says. “It’s really not so bad. I mean, you’re spending almost all your day at work anyway. And you’re coming back, and all you need is a clean and safe place to sleep in.” ^|^

“Kim says life underground “is especially hard for the older residents, some of whom have been down there for years. “They’re hoping that their next generation, their children, will be able to live above ground,” Kim says. “It’s this sense of longing and deferring a dream. And so it makes me wonder how long this dream can be deferred.” But despite the laws against living underground, and the discomfort and shame associated with it, Kim says it’s still a very active market. For hundreds of thousands of people, it’s the only viable option for living in, or under, Beijing.” ^|^

Very Poor in China

Poverty in China

The 21 million poorest people in China live on less than $88 a year (2007). About 9 percent of the population lives in absolute poverty, compared to 15 percent in the Philippines and 50 percent in Vietnam. Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University described the extreme poor as people who “are chronically hungry, unable to get health care, lack safe drinking water and sanitation, cannot afford education for their children and perhaps lack rudimentary shelter---a roof to keep rain out of the hut---and basic articles of clothing, like shoes.”

Among the legions of poor are shirtless rickshaw drivers, pensioners, unemployed workers in old industrial cities, barefoot construction workers, and skinny laborers who carry 40 bricks at a time that weigh 120 pounds. Most are farmers who don’t earn much from selling their crops. Newsweek described a girl who sold her blood to Beijing clinic so her family could buy fertilizer. In Guizhou, one of China's poorest provinces, peasant families sleep in open-air huts, collect water in the mountains with shoulder poles, sleep under thin quilts in the winter and subsist off cornmeal gruel. The New York Times described one man who spent two years of income for electricity---two 60-watts bulbs that lit up his house for a few hours a night. The man said, "we don't have money to buy fertilizer, I don’t have a cow or ox to cultivate the land and the soil is barren."

Tania Branigan wrote in The Guardian, “To understand just how poor rural Guizhou is, you can look at the statistics. Or you can look at the children in Qixin village. Zhao Ai is nine, but is so short he appears three years younger. He eats nothing between leaving home at 6.30am---for a two-hour trek down the mountain to Ruiyuan primary school---and returning at 5pm. [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian, October 2, 2011]

In 2010, Shanghai took the top spot in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)'s international rankings for reading, maths and science in state schools. Meanwhile, at Zhao's primary, the big educational challenge is "no food", says headteacher Xu Zuhua. Malnutrition stunts her pupils' growth and hampers their concentration. "Even though we are developing, it feels like urban areas are running while we are strolling," says Zhou Liude, who oversees Ruiyuan and nearby schools.

The government has sought to invest in rural areas, and the benefits of growth are spreading. In the towns around Qixin you see stores with gleaming yellow motorbikes and adverts for 3G and coffee. But these remain unimaginable luxuries for families like Zhao's, who survive on basic farming and wages sent home by relatives working in cities. Their poverty is disguised by development: the further away from the road people live, the poorer they are---and the worse their children's grades---says Ruiyuan's headteacher.

Decline of Poverty in China

As of 2005 China was home to two thirds of Asia’s poor. But the numbers were estimated to have fallen 46 million to 416 million —or from 36 percent in 2003 to 32 percent in 2004—according to the World Bank. It has been said that “China helped more people out of poverty than any other country in history.” Since the Deng reforms the number of people living in absolute poverty (unable to adequately feed themselves) has declined from one in four in 1978 to one in twelve today (less than 100 million people). The number of extreme poor has been reduced by 300 million.

Kenneth R. Weiss wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “One of the Communist Party’s primary aims has been to banish hunger and raise living standards, and by many measures the results have been impressive. By reducing the number of dependents per household and freeing more women to enter the workforce, population control efforts have helped lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and contributed to China's spectacular economic growth. [Source: Kenneth R. Weiss, Los Angeles Times, July 22, 2012]

Between 1990 and 2009, China slashed its numbers of rural poor from 85 million to 35.97 million, thanks in large part to the wages sent home by migrant workers. The government hopes further urbanization will lift more rural people out of poverty. According to the United Nations, the number of people living on less than $1 a day was reduced from 33 percent worldwide in 1990 to 16 percent in 2000 mainly because of economic growth in China and India.

Much of China’s dramatic decline in absolute poverty occurred in 1980s when the rural poverty rate fell from 76 percent in 1980 to 23 percent in 1985. The poverty rate has changed relatively little since then. The fact that much of the economic growth occurred after that raises the question: how much has market economics really helped the poor?

Development in China in China

Development is spotty and uneven. While Beijing and Shanghai have been ranked by the United Nations as equivalent to Greece and Singapore in terms of income levels the provinces of Gansu and Guizhou have been ranked with Haiti and Sudan.

Government assistance for the poor includes welfare payments for destitute city dwellers, rural anti-poverty projects and incentives for investments in poor provinces. As a whole the rural poor have been affected very little by the massive amounts of foreign investment that has poured into China.

Micro-credit lending schemes are being used and supported. Nobel-prize winner and Gameen Bank founder Muhammad Yunus is working with the Chinese government to introduce his micro credit system to rural China.

The concept of NGOs in China is almost a contradiction of terms. The equivalent of NGOs need to be sponsored by a Communist-controlled umbrella group and registered with the Chinese government, sometimes as companies.

Go West, See Minorities

Liu Bolin, China’s Invisible Man artist
Maybe this is what its like being poor and ignored in China Today

Economic Reforms and the Poor in China

Rural people benefited from the Deng reforms the most in the early 1980s when prices for crops were allowed to rise. This one move lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty and is regarded as the biggest anti-poverty measure in history. Under the Deng reforms many peasants moved from mud huts to brick homes and acquired better jobs, health care, food and opportunities than they had in the Mao era.

Even though 800 million peasants were the first to benefits from Deng's economic reforms, they have been left behind by the explosive growth in the coastal regions, cities and special economic zones. Incomes for farmers leveled off in 1985 while incomes for urban workers have risen sharply since then.

According the World Bank "the quick reductions of poverty through agricultural growth" in China "were largely exhausted by the end of 1984. According to Chinese government statistics 170 million moved out poverty between 1978 and 1985 but only 36 million moved out of poverty between 1985 and 1997.

Sentiment of the Have Nots in China

Most Chinese are better off than they were 20 years but many remain unsatisfied, envious and worried about their future. One rickshaw driver from Anhui Province, who had no home in Beijing at the time of the Olympics in 2008 and either slept in his rickshaw or on a bench at the Forbidden City, told the New York Times, “The only happy thing is to have money. You don’t have bitterness. You don’t have to feel tired.”

The people in the countryside who have failed to profit from the economic reforms are perhaps the one who look back on the Mao years with the most nostalgia. Dissident Liu Binyan wrote in Newsweek, "they feel that though life was hard in those years, it was more or less egalitarian, and people had the right to, moreover, to stop the wrongdoing of bureaucrats. But now the gap between rich and poor is growing wider and wider. Millions of workers in state owned factories have lost their jobs or are only partially paid. Retirement pensions are constantly in arrears. The peasants have been suffering under increasing financial burdens, sometimes including extortion at the hands of local officials. Corruption and abuse of power have run wild."

Many poor Chinese abhor the new millionaires who exploit tax breaks, child labor and financial privileges to get rich quick. "Red-eye disease" describes jealousy brought about being left out but seeing others gett rich quick. One orange farmer in Hunan told Time, "Rich entrepreneurs spend the equivalent of my annual income in one night at a karaoke bar."

One poor peasant in the Guizhou told the New York Times, " My biggest wish is that government will change its policies and help us to get rich, because living in this kind of poverty makes us too embarrassed to go out of doors."

Image Sources: Bucklin archives; Liu Bolin, China’s Invisible Man artist, Global Times Chinese: photo.huanqiu.com ; YouTube

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated July 2015

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