Can China eliminate poverty by 2020?

BUTUO COUNTY, LIANGSHAN, SICHUAN PROVINCE, CHINA (REUTERS) – Hidden away in mountains thousands of miles from the white-knuckle development of cities like Beijing, live the “hard bones” of China’s poverty, the Yi.

Geographically isolated, the Yi ethnic group have a distinct language and culture from the majority Han Chinese. They also have illiteracy rates of nearly 30 percent versus four percent nationally and average incomes in the area where many live are just 27 percent of the national average.

Dragging them, and groups like them out of poverty are crucial if China is to meet its goal of ending poverty by 2020, something president Xi Jinping has set as one of the key goals for his presidency and labelled “the most important task” of the ruling Communist Party.

China classifies poverty as an income of less than 2300 yuan ($340) per year, by this definition more than 40 million people are still poor, more than the entire population of Canada.

Jisi Lazuo is one of them. The 37 year old is illiterate and doesn’t speak Mandarin, the main language spoken in China. She’s also the only adult supporting a family of two grandparents and four children. Her husband died of lung disease contracted after working in a coal mine, and two of her other children died of tuberculosis.

“I’m constantly trying to earn money but because there’s only me I can’t make enough. I’m working 24/7 but these kids still don’t get enough to eat. In the winter I can’t even afford to buy them warm clothes,” she says.

Her home, Liangshan, is one of the key battlegrounds where the state’s poverty elimination goal will be put to the test.

One of fourteen official areas of “concentrated poverty”, Liangshan is infamous in the minds of many Chinese for its inhospitable terrain, punishing climate, and high levels of drug taking and HIV.

Over 400,000 of the area’s inhabitants are classified as poor, and the local government has been tasked with lifting 134,700 of them out of poverty in 2017 alone.

While many economists believe Beijing will likely meet its target, its very definition of poverty is also open to question. China’s benchmark is less than half that of the World Bank’s global standard for extreme poverty.

The language barrier and poor schooling remain huge problems, issues the government have recognized but still struggle to address.

Many like Emu Zhiji, one of the few people in his town who managed to make it to university, simply want a chance for the Yi to be allowed to do things in their own language and in keeping with their own culture.

He believes that beyond resources, a fundamental shift is needed before the Yi are to truly shake off the shackles of poverty and cease being dependent on the largess of the government.