NPR for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Who's Lifting Chinese People Out Of Poverty?

Hanna Barczyk for NPR

In an article last month on state goals for 2017, China's Xinhua news agency reported, "China has lifted 700 million people out of poverty through more than 30 years of reform and opening-up," while aiming to "lift" 10 million more in the coming year.

For some, the verb choice conjures an image of the giant hands of a powerful and magnanimous government carefully extracting villagers from their rundown mud-walled homes and then delicately depositing them inside new urban apartments with modern amenities.

Others, though, don't give the expression much thought. The term has been used by China's state-controlled media for more than a decade, long enough for Western media like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Reuters (among others) to parrot it with regularity whenever China's poverty alleviation goals reach a new high.

But who's really doing the lifting? Is it China's government through policies that have created jobs, alleviated poverty in the countryside and provided social welfare to hundreds of millions? Or, as has been pointed out by skeptics, did Chinese people lift themselves out of poverty once Mao and his horrific political campaigns expired, allowing China's leaders to replace terror and madness with rational economic policies that ensured people's hard work is rewarded with capital?

The question has inspired many a debate about the role of government policy versus the will of the individual in China, but whoever deserves credit (experts would argue both), credit is certainly due. What China — its government and its people — have achieved is unprecedented in human history: Around 700 million Chinese have worked their way above the poverty line since 1980, accounting for three-quarters of global poverty reduction during that period. (According to the World Bank more than 500 million Chinese lifted themselves out of poverty as China's poverty rate fell from 88 percent in 1981 to 6.5 percent in 2012, as measured by the percentage of people living on less than $1.90 a day).

I've refrained from using the term "lifted out of poverty" in the previous sentence, and what's curious is that China's state media does the same when reporting this news in Chinese to its own people. While China's largest state-run news organizations routinely boast about China lifting its people out of poverty in their English-language editions, these same news organizations avoid the term in their native language. The Chinese name of the government's anti-poverty campaign is "fupin kaifa" (扶贫开发), literally translated "assist the poor and develop," and Chinese-language reports about poverty alleviation in the state-run media are peppered with terms like "tuopin" (脱贫), "shake off poverty," "jianpin" (减贫), "reduce poverty," "xiaochu pinkun" (消除贫困), "eliminate impoverishment" and "zhaiqu pinkunmao" (摘去贫困帽), "taking off the poverty hat."

"Lifting" people out of poverty is nowhere to be seen. The term seems reserved exclusively for state media's English language publications aimed at foreign readers.


One likely answer is a government bent on cleaning up its human rights record to the sometimes-skeptical developed countries of the West. Each year, China's State Council releases a white paper on the country's human rights progress, and poverty alleviation is usually front-and-center in the report. An editorial in the People's Daily earlier this year complained that "certain countries" don't consider China's poverty alleviation to be an achievement in human rights, writing that human rights have "various manifestations due to different circumstances in different countries. In China, poverty alleviation, health care and social security are proof of the country's progress in human rights."

It's a point that's hard to argue with, whoever is responsible for the heavy lifting.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.