The blunt force of China’s mobilisation campaigns

The writer, a Georgetown University assistant professor of Asian studies, is the author of ‘Mobilizing for Development’

China’s President Xi Jinping last month declared a remarkable victory, stating that “absolute and overall regional poverty have been eliminated” in the country. His speech marked the conclusion of an eight-year drive to eradicate abject poverty by raising every person’s annual income to above 4,000Rmb ($618) in time for the Chinese Communist party’s centennial in July.

This milestone did not come easily. In 2012, there were 99m impoverished people in China. The government spent some 1.5tn renminbi lifting them up and sent 2.9m officials to the poorest villages to implement relief plans.

Last March, as the pandemic threatened to derail the campaign, Mr Xi reiterated his “solemn promise” that poverty would disappear by December. Officials rushed to meet the deadline, awarding new homes, subsidies and employment support to households. The last of 832 targeted counties were proclaimed poverty-free in November. In contrast, the World Bank estimates the coronavirus pandemic pushed more than 100m people globally into extreme poverty last year.

But Mr Xi’s milestone is not about economic growth lifting all boats or an authoritarian government simply declaring poverty gone. It reflects China’s status as a campaign state, or a mobilisational regime, whose leaders have long relied on the extraordinary deployment of resources and people to accomplish key goals. 

However, local anti-poverty plans shifted over time from improving basic livelihoods to driving urbanisation through resettlement. The idea that consumption, not exports, underlies China’s future growth became mainstream after the global recession in 2008-9. Once poverty was vanquished, the thinking went, a new middle class would rise.

But for tens of millions of families, poverty alleviation has meant abandoning their homes, farmland and village communities, and moving into mass housing complexes on the outskirts of unfamiliar cities. Many have assumed debt to purchase the subsidised housing. It is unlikely, given China’s slowing economy, that the proliferation of “peasant apartments” on the urban fringe has been accompanied by sufficient non-farm jobs. The result may be concentrated poverty, as previous inequalities are reproduced. 

Poor households are not the only ones affected. Authorities in Shandong province have been razing villages and moving farmers into high-rises in the name of “rural revitalisation”. Mr Xi began using that term in 2017, signalling the next drive.

The appeal of campaigns, compared with regular policymaking, is that by demanding quick and clear results, they can overcome bureaucracy and demonstrate state power. By galvanising the country’s resources, they can deliver greater change than market forces alone or politics-as-usual would produce.

Campaigns also differ tactically, with leading officials setting hard targets, dispatching work teams, empowering activists, intensifying propaganda and exerting pressure to overwhelm ingrained behaviours. 

But by inducing competition among implementing officials, campaigns can generate excesses. The party understands this risk but has also learnt that not all campaigns are like Mao Zedong’s disastrous Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution. They are crucial to the regime’s effectiveness, even if they sometimes go haywire.

The reform-era campaigns since 1978 have not been as destabilising as their Maoist predecessors, but occasionally led to violence and abuse. Examples include the one-child policy’s forced sterilisations, the persecution of Falun Gong adherents and continuing migrant evictions in gentrifying cities. 

More recently, destructive over-reach is evident in the harsh repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang, where the government claims to be waging a campaign against terrorism. The successful battle against coronavirus has also entailed a variety of draconian measures, such as sealing people in their homes to halt infection.

The mixed outcomes of such drives have not stopped China’s leaders from embracing them. Although the Communist party today avoids the word “campaign” (yundong), due to its Maoist connotations, mass mobilisation remains fundamental to the regime’s operations.

By barrelling on with the anti-poverty campaign, China remains on course to become a “moderately prosperous society” by the middle of this year. But integrating this fabricated middle class into the rest of the economy will be a feat of a different scale. 

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