Academic journal article China Perspectives

Manipulating China’s “Minimum Livelihood Guarantee”: Political Shifts in a Program for the Poor in the Period of XI Jinping

Academic journal article China Perspectives

Manipulating China’s “Minimum Livelihood Guarantee”: Political Shifts in a Program for the Poor in the Period of XI Jinping

Article excerpt

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Among the notable achievements of the post-1978 regime in China, a prominent one is its oft-proclaimed victory in facilitating the escape from dire poverty of several hundred million persons. Though not all researchers agree as to the magnitude of the success, certainly major change has taken place.(1) But even as this reduction of destitution has occurred, income inequality in the country has increased substantially since the mid-1990s, with the nationwide Gini coefficient having leapt from about 0.40 at that point up to almost 0.50 by 2015.(2) What has been happening in regard to a state-led effort to cater to the poverty-stricken therefore deserves attention. A point of special concern might be how residual poverty is being addressed in the current regime of Xi Jinping.

Most investigation of Chinese privation has focused on the phenomenon of poverty itself (and often on rural poverty in particular), or else on the efficacy of particular efforts at eliminating or reducing indigence.(3) Not much attention has been given to the details of the one specific policy examined here, the Minimum Livelihood Guarantee (MLG) (zuidi shenghuo baozhang ...) or, for short, the dibao (...), much less to how it might have been adjusted over time. I argue that this program has been manipulated and reshaped more than once to bring it into sync with larger policy goals - goals quite unrelated to combating impoverishment. The mission of this article is to substantiate this claim. I do this by examining five mutations injected into the program in just the past couple years, tracing back to the autumn of 2012, when Xi was soon to take up his duties.

Indeed, such changes in the scheme have been both subtle and obvious, and those I target are the following: 1) requiring that the labour-capable go to work, instead of collecting welfare allowances (as many had been doing); 2) emphasising the destitute and desperate as the "keypoint" (zhongdian ...) recipients of relief; 3) zeroing in on corruption; 4) calculating applicants' total household assets in assessing eligibility for the allowances; and 5) privileging the rural areas in funding. I contrast each of the five new postXi initiatives with what the MLG initiative, first promulgated in 1999, initially put forth as its aims and its mechanics. I present shifts in the regime's allocation of allowances - and alterations in the amounts of funding for the allowances - over the years, to chart changes in the policies informing its execution. In conclusion, I highlight how the program has been rewritten repeatedly and utilised politically in line with various, often "stability"-oriented, objectives of the moment. Examining whether other public policy programs have been similarly rewritten to match the larger goals of the Xi regime would be an interesting project, but one beyond the scope of this analysis.

Most of the research in this paper was done with government documents and online articles. I also conducted (or supervised) in-home interviews with recipients of the d/bao during summer from 2007 through 2013 (nearly 100 households in eight cities - Xi'an, Wuhan, Lanzhou, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, plus three Hubei prefectural cities: Jingzhou, Qianjiang, and Xiantao), with a few city officials (in Wuhan and Lanzhou, both in 2007), with community (shequ ±M) leaders in every community I and my assistants visited, and with scholars who work on issues of urban poverty and welfare. I conducted the interviews in all cases except for in 2010 in Guangzhou and in 2007 in some of the Wuhan communities, sometimes with a translator and always (except once in Lanzhou in 2010) with community officials listening. When I was not present at the conversations I obtained transcripts of the talks from the students who assisted me and I then translated these. I made my contacts in various ways, but always from local scholars I knew in each city. The interviews were open-ended, and community leaders always selected the households to be interviewed. …

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