Xi Jinping and the ‘Other’ China

At the end of May, China held its annual Chinese Poverty Alleviation International Forum (中国扶贫国际论坛), which serves to draw attention to Chinese achievements in this area (Xinhua, May 26). Poverty alleviation is likely to remain a key theme in state media as China prepares for the 19th Party Congress later this year. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has set for itself the ambitious goal of largely eradicating poverty by 2020. Its previous success in moving large numbers of Chinese out of poverty—largely due to Deng Xiaoping’s Reform and Opening policies—constitutes an important pillar of its domestic legitimacy. Not surprisingly, the CCP has launched a propaganda push in state media to highlight its progress.At the center of much of the attention is the “core” of the Party, Xi Jinping, whose experiences in the countryside as a young man, and major policies have been offered up as proof of the Party’s continuing ties to regular people and its commitment to China’s urban and rural poor.
Xi Jinping, in particular, is being lauded as a major driver of these efforts. Xi has made sweeping economic reform and the expansion of the “moderately prosperous” class (小康) core planks of his policies, particularly as embodied in the “Four Comprehensives” (China Brief, February 23). Though he is well-known as a princeling—Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, held a number of high positions—state media has played up his connection to China’s rural areas and farmers (Xinhua, May 22). His early experiences as a “sent-down youth” in rural Shaanxi province during the Cultural Revolution, then later as a village cadre, in particular, have been a focus of the reporting. [1]In March, People’s Daily published a short video called “People’s Representative Xi Jinping” (人民代表习近平) about these experiences. The documentary emphasizes that “As a youth, Xi Jinping experienced life and endured hardships as a member of a country-side production team…spent several years undergoing challenging experiences with the masses …[and] never put on any official airs..” (CPCNews.cn, March 2).Xi’s focus on land reform is grounded in security and economic objectives. He has tied food security—bolstered by more efficient, larger farms—directly to his larger view of national security, which he terms the “Comprehensive Security Outlook” (总体安全观) (People’s Forum, June 4, 2014). Land reforms can be credited with helping shift millions out of poverty. [2] Particularly as China shifts from export-based economy to a service economy that relies more on domestic consumption to drive growth, increasing the number of educated workers and raising productivity all become more important. According to Xinhua, the size of China’s economy is expected to exceed $13 trillion by 2020. And its middle class is expected to expand to include 400 million of its citizens (Xinhua, March 13).In Beijing, the view is that China has successfully modernized, and that policies are working. But despite major progress in improving the lives of ordinary Chinese, inequality is rising, and the disparity between urban areas and the “other” China—rural areas—is increasing.An annual survey from Peking University and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences reports that China has a high level of economic inequality at the national level. The Gini coefficient—a statistical measure of inequality—for 2015 was .5. This has risen over the past 30 years from .3 in the early 1980s to .45 and above (BBC Chinese, January 16, 2016).  More troubling, however, is that the level of inequality is rising faster in the countryside. The report “China Family Panel Studies (中国民生发展报告, 2016), found that while incomes increased faster in rural households than in urban areas, inequality between incomes in the countryside and urban areas increased (Sohu, March 21).China’s demographic distribution exacerbates this problem. Its population, and wealth, are disproportionately concentrated on its east coast, mostly clustered around a few cities, a fact made clear by the accompanying cartogram. More granular data further reveals that even within China’s interior the population is densely clustered in just a few cities and prefectures. [3]

Moreover, the countryside is emptying, aging, and falling behind. Although in 2015 44 percent of Chinese still lived in rural areas that number is expected to fall to 30 percent by 2030 (World Bank, 2015; World Bank, March 25, 2014).

The impacts of negative medium-and long-term trends fall disproportionally on the country-side. China’s government debt-to-GDP recently reached 277 percent at the end of 2016, meaning that many county-level governments are deeply in debt just as economic opportunities in those regions are drying up (SCMP, January 26).

Longer term, population aging will sap resources from the state and leave many farms without workers, since the average age of Chinese farmers is over 60. As exports decline as a source of growth and the price of living in urban areas increase, jobs that once waited in the cities are now harder to find and remittances back to families in rural areas decline. Rural governments are left with less revenue to provide services, such as pensions and law enforcement. This latter effect has resulted in a rise in criminality and drug-related gang activity (China Brief, September 4, 2015; China Brief, March 24, 2016).

The most important driver of China’s political behavior will continue to be its ongoing economic transition. With the pressure on to deliver clear progress ahead of the 19th Party Congress, the focus will likely continue to be the CCP’s success in moving people out of poverty and generally improving living conditions. The economic transition is likely to hit China’s rural areas the hardest, posing new challenges to the governments’ legitimacy.


Peter Wood is a Program Associate for China at The Jamestown Foundation and also serves as the Editor of China Brief. You can follow him on Twitter @PeterWood_PDW


  1. Urban youth who were forced or volunteered to work in the countryside, and experience life as a peasant.
  2. Kroeber, Arthur R. China’s Economy: What Everyone Needs to Know?, Oxford University Press, 2016. Kindle edition. Locations 655-657.
  3. Population data drawn from the 6th Population Census (2010). The author used this data, despite its age because it is more consistently available across provincial and prefectural lines. GADM GIS Data used for boundaries. In one instance—Chaohu Prefecture, Anhui—no longer exists and has been broken up among the surrounding Prefectures. This is not represented in the GIS data but an attempt to approximate the correct density by identifying the relevant county-level populations and recalculating.