The Chinese leaders boast that they are delivering for the benefit of the people. This is their main claim to fame. Recently, the foreign minister Wang Yi, clashed with a Canadian journalist who asked about human rights. His line of questioning was “irresponsible” said Wang, and went on: “Do you know that China has lifted more than 600 million people out of poverty?”

Has it? Is the Chinese government delivering the way it boasts?

On poverty, we don’t know. There are no precise official poverty statistics. Numbers such as the 600 million are based on rough estimates of how many people live on an income below a very low threshold, such as the equivalent of 1 or 2 dollars a day. When the economy grows, the numbers below that threshold go down, but when the threshold is an income that does not provide for anything near a minimally decent life, this is not an informative statistic.

On poverty in China, we can say three things with certainty:

  • In the growth period, the extent of poverty has been reduced, probably a great deal. Compared to the Maoist period, there are many fewer people in poverty.
  • Even so, the 600 million boast being false, China is still a country of massive and oppressive poverty.
  • All the reduction in poverty in the growth period, has come as a direct result of economic growth, with none of it resulting from redistribution thanks to social protections. On the contrary, since economic inequality has increased massively, there has been an increase in the extent of relative poverty.

Chinese governance has in fact not delivered anywhere near what the leaders claim. Even their basic boast of having delivered economic growth is false. It is without doubt true that there has been strong growth in the last two or three decades, but

  • Not as strong as has been boasted; the official statistics are bogus and have exaggerated the pace of growth.
  • No more than standard for the region; careful comparisons of the best growth periods in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China show all to be about equal but with growth in China slightly behind the three other countries.

The same foreign minister Wang Yi has called “the Chinese story the greatest success story of our time” (at the World Economic Forum in 2014). False boasting again. In the Maoist period, the Chinese story was the greatest horror story of our time. In the post-Mao period, the Chinese story has been no more than a standard East Asian story.


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