TAIPEI, Taiwan — To great fanfare, Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Thursday declared his country's "complete victory" over extreme poverty.
“This is the glory and honor of the Chinese people,” he said, before presenting medals to local officials and residents deemed “model fighters” in the government campaign, which he called “a splendid miracle shining in history.”
Xi’s claim of eradicating poverty comes as the coronavirus pandemic is set to push as many as 150 million people into extreme poverty worldwide this year, according to the World Bank, underscoring how China has emerged from the global crisis relatively unscathed.
Yet the announcement, delivered with much bombast but few details, also underlines China’s looming demographic crisis as its working-age population shrinks and businesses and companies struggle amid a stalled economic recovery.
Over the last eight years since Xi became head of the ruling Communist Party, the government has spent as much as 1.6 trillion yuan ($248 billion) on poverty alleviation — as local officials went door to door to identify impoverished households, delivering assistance from loans to farm animals. Experts say the policy is key to Xi’s legacy as he works to cement his position as the country’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, China’s paramount leader and founding father of the Chinese Communist Party.
“Xi Jinping claimed victory in the war against the coronavirus and now he is claiming victory in the war against poverty. This gives Xi the ability the claim victories in two major challenges facing China. This is crucial if you are trying to position yourself as a leader akin to Mao,” said Carl Minzner, a professor at Fordham Law School and author of “End of an Era: How China’s Authoritarian Revival Is Undermining Its Rise.”
On Thursday, as Xi spoke, a giant banner covering the walls of the Great Hall called for the country to unite around Xi “as the core” and “realize the Chinese dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” A group of ethnic minorities from across the country sang, “Without the Communist Party, there would be no new China,” in a tribute to Xi’s campaign.
On Wednesday, the official People’s Daily included a three-page spread on Xi’s leadership in the fight that lifted “all rural people” and “all poor counties” out of poverty. The article declared, “The problem of absolute poverty that has plagued us for thousands of years has come to an end.”
But neither Xi nor state media explained how the figures were calculated and what threshold was used, prompting questions about the metrics. In 2019, China’s statistics bureau defined rural poverty as below per capita annual income of 2,300 yuan ($356). Previous officials have defined the poverty line as less than 4,000 yuan ($620) a year, or $1.69 a day — less than the World Bank’s threshold of $1.90 a day and well below the $5.50 a day that economists recommend for upper-middle-income countries.
While China’s economy is expected to grow about 8 percent this year, consumer spending has not fully recovered, and analysts believe unemployment rates are higher than officials have reported. College graduates are also expected to struggle to find jobs this year, and falling birthrates threaten to undermine growth.
Other analysts say that many residents are struggling, even above the poverty line. In comments that spurred a national debate, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said last year that about 600 million Chinese citizens, almost 40 percent of the country, live on 1,000 yuan ($155) a month.
On Thursday, the country’s poverty alleviation campaign dominated headlines posted on social media, with some discussions censored after Internet users questioned the figures.
“Can someone tell me what the official standard is for eliminating poverty? Why can I still see people on the street begging?” one asked on the microblog Weibo. Another joked, “China has eliminated absolute poverty. That’s right. Everyone is just relatively poor.”
Others gibed that they had not been included in the statistics. “I’m still so poor,” one user commented. Another said: “Perhaps the motherland forgot to count me.”
Pei Lin Wu in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, contributed to this report.