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What China's 'Total Victory' Over Extreme Poverty Looks Like In Actuality

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When China emerged from the Cultural Revolution in the late 1970s and embarked on economic reforms, almost everyone in the country was poor. Now the ruling Communist Party says it has defeated extreme poverty. NPR China correspondent John Ruwitch has more.

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JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Chinese leader Xi Jinping handed out medals last week to officials who helped deliver what he called a decisive victory over extreme poverty. The feat, he said, was nothing short of a manmade miracle.

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PRESIDENT XI JINPING: (Speaking Chinese).

RUWITCH: He described it as the great glory of the Chinese people and the Communist Party.

MARTIN RAISER: We do need to recognize the enormous progress that China has made since, you know, the 1980s.

RUWITCH: Martin Raiser is the World Bank's representative in China. He says China accounts for around 70% of global progress in the reduction of absolute poverty. Most of that resulted from the party loosening controls. Peasants were allowed to farm their own plots, markets took root, and living standards for hundreds of millions of people rose quickly. But pockets of deep poverty have persisted. Shortly after coming to power in 2012, Xi pledged to eradicate absolute poverty by the end of the decade. He launched an aggressive campaign to tackle the problem.

TERRY SICULAR: They identified every single poor household.

RUWITCH: Terry Sicular is an economist at Canada's Western University.

SICULAR: And they assigned responsibility for those identified poor households to these teams of cadres and officials who were sent to the villages.

RUWITCH: According to state media, some 3 million people were involved. The government says it spent a quarter of a trillion dollars, and experts say untold millions more were sunk by companies and others. Sicular says the party appears to have hit its target, but with caveats. For one, the cost and intensity of the now-completed campaign raise questions about the outcome's sustainability.

SICULAR: To bring people out of poverty at a moment in time doesn't mean you can keep them there.

RUWITCH: There are reports of problems with how some of the poor may have been pulled above the poverty line. Researchers say in some cases, people were just handed cash. Others were uprooted and moved, but remain at risk.

SICULAR: A fairly large number of people in China are close to the poverty line and are vulnerable to poverty. So it has to be a sustained, ongoing effort.

RUWITCH: And that gets at questions about what the party was targeting in the first place. China defines extreme poverty as earning less than $2.30 a day at purchasing power parity. The World Bank's figure is a $1.90 a day, but that's generally for low-income countries. In the upper-middle income category, where China sits, the bank suggests a poverty line of $5.50 a day. By that standard, the World Bank's Martin Raiser says...

RAISER: China still has around 13% of its population falling below that line, or close to 200 million people.

RUWITCH: 200 million people - and they're not all in the countryside, where the government's efforts have focused. Raiser says many people in cities don't make $5.50 a day. And he says this fixation on meeting a minimum income threshold should become increasingly irrelevant anyway.

RAISER: As countries get richer, the extreme poverty line that we use for low-income countries may no longer be a relevant concept for understanding whether there are still poor people.

RUWITCH: The party is well aware that it has a lot of work to do.

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RUWITCH: But for Xi Jinping, proclaiming victory over extreme poverty is propaganda gold. That's especially true ahead of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party this July and a party leadership reshuffle next year. Tony Saich is an expert on Chinese politics at Harvard.

TONY SAICH: You know, Mao brought them to power. Deng Xiaoping started reforms. But really, the new era is dominated by Xi's thoughts, Xi's policies and Xi's actions.

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XI: (Speaking Chinese).

RUWITCH: At the ceremony last week, Xi may have been handing out the medals, but it was clear who was being projected as the real hero.

John Ruwitch, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.