Human rights champions in the West have many strong and compelling reasons to criticize China’s treatment of its citizens. In doing so, they often point out that these are not expressions of Western values but rights that belong to all people, drawing on the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
These human rights advocates tend to ignore that the U.N. Declaration covers not merely political and legal rights but also economic and social ones. On this front, China has been doing quite a bit better and now is advancing on a remarkable new initiative. China first grew its economy for decades, at rates the West can only dream about, and, in the process, lifted some 700 million people from poverty into the middle class. In the West, politicians keep talking about reducing inequality, but instead it is growing, while China is now at the last stage of a major drive to end poverty for many millions of people in rural areas, those who had been left behind by previous economic advances.
In November, China announced that it had eliminated extreme poverty within its borders. China’s anti-poverty initiatives over the last five years led the country to spent approximately 1 percent of its yearly economic output, or a total of nearly $700 billion. The government supplied various grants, loans, and farm animals to qualifying villagers and “[o]fficials visited residents weekly to check on their progress.” The government also granted funding to private factories to support the salaries of workers who met the poverty criteria and to assist with equipment purchases.
News outlets in the U.S. are careful to treat many figures about China’s progress, often provided by the Chinese government, with a grain of salt. However, a Wall Street Journal article on the subject quotes Matteo Marchisio, the East Asia head of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, an agency of the United Nations. Marchisio states that “China has managed to raise the income of hundreds of millions of people above the poverty line in a very few years.” Similarly, the New York Times quotes World Bank country director for China Martin Raiser, who holds that “We’re pretty sure China’s eradication of absolute poverty in rural areas has been successful — given the resources mobilized, we are less sure it is sustainable or cost effective.”
The same Wall Street Journal article points out that poverty is still endemic in China, as 27 percent of the Chinese population, or more than 370 million people, live on less than $5.50 per day. Similarly, the New York Times notes that the definitions of poverty that China used for its aid program are limiting, only including “people classified as extremely poor at some point from 2014 to 2016, without adding others who may have fallen on hard times since then.” Basically, no help was provided to those who either did not meet all of the government’s criteria for assistance or fell just above the government’s poverty threshold. Moreover, the initiative concentrated on rural poverty, neglecting those who struggle to make ends meet in cities. Another criticism of China’s efforts put forth in the Times article is that the antipoverty drive “fails to tackle deep-seated problems that disproportionately hurt the poor, including the cost of health care and other gaping holes in China’s emerging social safety net.”
Those who fear that the anti-poverty drive will bolster the legitimacy of the Chinese regime in the eyes of its people – which is based, to an important extent, on providing a rising standard of living – need not worry. So far, as expected, past successes have led to increased demands, not satisfaction. This is especially true among members of the middle class, particularly those in the urban coastal areas, who have seen their incomes rise sharply, and who now complain about poor services, pollution, corruption, and lack of political freedoms.
The situation reminds me of an old social science study that found that U.S. military members’ level of satisfaction with promotions during World War II was much higher in the Military Police (MP) than in the Air Force. The reason? No one expected promotions in the MP, because they were very rare; those who got them were in seventh heaven. Promotions in the Air Force were very common and hence those who got them did not think they were a big deal, while those who did not were very disappointed. China’s rapid increase in standard of living raises both the expectations of those left behind and the demands of those included in the growth.
The Chinese government is seeking other sources of legitimacy (albeit not necessarily because of their understanding of the Sisyphean nature of consumerism). Officials are promoting nationalism; however, this is a tricky tiger to ride, lest it leads to popular demand for aggressive actions that the government is not keen to take, such as capturing Taiwan, when the Chinese military is far from equipped to proceed.
China would do better if it drew on communitarian and transcendental values encompassed in Confucianism. For those whose basic needs are secured, such values provide sources of satisfaction other than the consumption of goods and services.
Next, watch China’s moving to rein in big tech and preventing those who accumulate economic power from exercising undue political power, issues the West is also facing.
Amitai Etzioni is a university professor and professor of international affairs at The George Washington University. He is the author of “Happiness is the Wrong Metric,” which can be downloaded without charge.