Central Government Cracks Down on “Low-End” Citizens While Praising “Poverty Alleviation” Efforts

Publication: China Brief Volume: 17 Issue: 16

In the wake of a fire on November 18 in a poor Beijing suburb that killed 19 people, police equipped with bulldozers and heavy-duty demolition equipment evicted several tens of thousands of migrant workers who had settled in Beijing over the past ten years (Ming Pao [Hong Kong], December 2; BBC Chinese, November 24). None of these so-called “low-end population” that were kicked out of their homes were given compensation or legal recourse. [1] The mass eviction of migrant workers stands in stark contrast to China’s “poverty alleviation” (fupin; 扶贫) campaign, a major plank of the “China model” of development, which Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping touted at the 19th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress as an “alternative option” to the Western order.

Poverty Alleviation and the China Model

Throughout Xi’s five-year tenure, the “core leader” of the party-state apparatus has repeatedly cited poverty alleviation, social welfare, and justice as not only his major policy goals but seminal attributes of the China model. Xi’s first slogan—the “Chinese dream”—envisages the obliteration of poverty by 2021, the centenary of the establishment of the CCP, when China will have become a “moderately prosperous society.” Moreover, in 2014, Xi pledged that every citizen would be protected by rule of law and a fair judicial system (Guancha.cn, October 23, 2014; Qstheory.cn, August 22, 2014). During the 19th Party Congress last month, Xi promised that the Party would satisfy not only the people’s rising aspirations for higher living standards but also their “growing demands for democracy, rule of law, equality, justice, safety and environmental [standards].” Xi then asserted that “Chinese wisdom” and the “Chinese fang’an [model or blueprint; 方案]” would provide a “brand-new option” for developing countries which have misgivings about the traditional Western model (China.com.cn, October 18; Wen Wei Po [Hong Kong], October 24).

Judging by the official definition of fupin, the Xi administration seems to be doing well. The official poverty line is defined as an individual income of 2,300 yuan (at 2010 price levels) a year. As of the end of last year, China still had more than 43 million residents in rural areas with an annual income of less than 2,300 yuan (roughly $348). Twelve million people were lifted out of poverty in 2016 and another 10 million people are expected to be taken off the rolls this year. (South China Morning Post, September 1). President Xi, who spent several years as a “rusticated youth” in a barren hilly village in Shaanxi, has taken a personal interest in the fupin campaign. At a major speech last summer, Xi again committed this administration to wipe out poverty by 2020 (China.com.cn, September 1; Xinhua, August 31).

Yet a major shortcoming of treating poverty alleviation as a quasi-political campaign is that fupin is often used to boost the political fortunes and standing of “Xi and his protégés. The best example of this is the new Chongqing Party Secretary Chen Min’er (陈敏尔), who has long been viewed as a potential heir to Xi. One of the reasons for the elevation of Chen (born 1963) to the Politburo at the 19th Party Congress was his outstanding fupin achievements while serving as governor and party secretary of hardscrabble Guizhou Province from 2012–2017. According to the People’s Daily, “the party committee and government of Guizhou has been expert at ‘waging tough battles’ to eradicate poverty.” In the five years since the 18th Party Congress of 2012, more than 7 million peasants were lifted out of poverty (People’s Daily, April 16).

Guizhou provinces’ success in becoming a destination for transfer payments from the central government and loans from state-owned banks shows how the fupin campaign has been politicized in service of well-placed cadres’. Last October, the Guizhou Branch of the People’s Bank of China (China’s central bank) extended 43.6 billion yuan of low-interest credit to provincial financial institutions which have a track record in helping rural counties and villages develop their economies. The central government-backed loans carry an interest rate which is 2–5 percent lower than average. Provincial authorities indicated that a “multi-faceted, extensive financial system has been constructed to help poor districts and poor population centers” (China.com.cn, October 21; Xinhua, October 20).

Both Chinese and Western analysts, however, have argued that in its anxiety to parade fupin results, the Xi administration has neglected the basic legal, educational and human rights of “low-end sectors.” After all, the majority of the tens of millions of migrant laborers who have illegally settled in the outskirts of big cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou long ago ceased to live under the 2,300 yuan-per-year poverty line. In busy seasons, these migrant workers, who are employed in professions ranging from housing construction to menial household work, can earn 3,000 yuan or more a month (163.com [Beijing], November 1; The Diplomat, June 29, 2016). The sticking point is that, as in previous administrations, the Xi leadership has failed to guarantee that members of disadvantaged sectors—even those who have lifted themselves out of the poverty line—can fully enjoy the constitutionally mandated rights that urbanites have taken for granted.

According to historian and social critic Zhang Lifan, every citizen should have the right to live in any part of China. The 59-year-old hukou or household registration regulation, which has been denounced as a modern-day apartheid system, has prevented citizens from rural areas to live in prosperous cities along the coast. Even migrant workers who have settled in the big cities for years cannot get urban I.D. cards, which alone would enable them to enjoy amenities and benefits similar to those given urban citizens. “Every civilized country allows citizens to settle in different parts of the nation,” said Zhang. “After all, Chairman Mao was one of the millions of poor peasants who moved north” to seize better political and economic opportunities in the cities, he added (Zhang Lifan’s Twitter, November 28; VOA Chinese, November 28.)

A major document on economic and social reform released by the party Central Committee in late 2013 pledged to “make innovative changes to population management, and to speed up the reform of residence-permit systems.” Yet the directive, titled “Decision on Certain Major Issues Regarding Comprehensively Deepening Reforms,” only alluded to the possibility of peasants freely settling in medium-sized cities. Moreover, it affirmed the long-standing CCP belief in “seriously controlling the population scale of megacities” (Xinhua, November 18, 2013). In fact, the official pretext for the eviction of migrants in Beijing is precisely President Xi’s instruction that the capital’s development—including the control of the number of residents—must follow rigorous planning. “Constructing and managing well Beijing is a major part of the modernization of the national governance system as well as governance ability” (Xinhua, March 2).

The glossy veneer of Xi’s programs geared toward fupin and the provision of social welfare cannot hide the fact that “low-end” migrant workers evicted out of their modest homes in the capital have no recourse to legal help. According to hukou regulations, they have no right to be in Beijing in the first place. Even several small-scale NGOs which offered temporary lodging and free transport services to the evictees were harassed by police and ordered to stop (Apple Daily [Hong Kong], November 26; South China Morning Post, November 26).

Partly owing to the virtual apartheid of urban and rural populations, there is a systematic bias against those unfortunate Chinese who happen to grow up in destitute pockets of the central and western provinces. Despite constitutional guarantees that every Chinese is entitled to nine years of free education, many children in remote villages—particularly girls—only have skimpy access to education facilities. Research by Stanford University economist Scott Rozelle shows that more than half of eighth graders in neglected rural areas in China have IQs below 90, which would limit their learning and working opportunities in later life. At least one-third of rural children fail to complete junior high. Moreover, less than 10 percent of them go to senior high school, compared with 70 percent of their peers in cities. Compounding these issues, many children are “left-alone kids” or offspring of the estimated 200 million migrant workers who have flocked to find better jobs in the cities. These children are mostly taken care of by their grandparents, whose education and hygiene are very low. Poverty Alleviation efforts are unlikely to address these injustices since too many barriers to social mobility remain. For example, almost all urban high schools—which are much better equipped than those in the countryside—do not accept rural students, including those from relatively better-off families (China Daily, September 28; Sciencemag.org, September 21).


The institutionalized discrimination against rural Chinese has shown Xi’s repeated pledges that all citizens “need not worry about food, clothing, free education, basic medical and housing facilities” to be hollow (Apple Daily, November 28). His 19th Party Congress address was replete with promises that all citizens would have “housing security” and equal access to social-welfare amenities—prerequisites for a responsible socialist administration (People’s Daily, October 28; China News Service, December 5, 2016). Yet what the merciless eviction of the “low-end population” of Beijing has demonstrated is that China has become a nation where the privileged classes led by the Party’s biggest clans ride roughed over disadvantaged sectors. Delaware State University Sinologist Yinghong Cheng, notes that the recent Beijing crisis testifies to the growth of “social Darwinism” underpinning the “violence, chicanery and suppression” used by the authorities (Theinitium.com [Hong Kong], November 26). At stake is not only the perpetuation of an unjust socio-political order, but the bankruptcy of the China model that Xi has so triumphantly paraded before nations keen to explore non-Western development paths.


  1. The term diduan renkou (“low-end population” [低端人口]) was first used in an article on urban management published by the Overseas Edition of the People’s Daily in August It has since been widely used by officials and journalists to refer to “workers engaged in low-end professions or jobs.” Despite its derogatory connotation, the term has appeared in Beijing municipality documents on the subject of population management. Since the mass eviction, numerous scholars and opinion leaders in Beijing, Hong Kong and overseas-Chinese communities have slammed the Xi administration for institutionalized discrimination against migrant workers, who have played a key role in making the “Chinese economic miracle” over the past two decades possible (Ming Pao, November 28; BBC Chinese, November 24; China Youth Daily, August 2, 2016).