(MA XUEJING / CHINA DAILY)
After lifting more than 800 million people out of poverty in the past four decades, China has vowed to eliminate absolute poverty by the end of this year. But the novel coronavirus outbreak has created new challenges in achieving this goal, especially because about 5 million people still live in abject poverty, and some people lifted out of poverty could slip back to their previous state and some low-income households could fall into poverty.
That China had largely contained the epidemic, and after the new outbreak in Beijing, it has taken immediate and stringent prevention and control measures raises hope that the economy would soon be moving full steam ahead and the country would eliminate abject poverty by the end of 2020.
As most of the impoverished population live in the countryside, revitalizing production in the agriculture and food processing sectors and taking care of the migrant workers who have returned home is key to boosting the overall economy.
During the annual session of the National People's Congress in late May, Premier Li Keqiang announced a fiscal stimulus package of about 3.6 trillion yuan (US$506 billion) to lead China's economic recovery and offset the losses caused by the strict measures to contain the spread of the virus. And since many migrant workers could not rejoin work in urban areas due to the closure or slowdown of manufacturing, construction and service sectors, part of the stimulus should be used to help them start new businesses, and thus revive economic activities and create jobs in rural areas.
In this regard, a policy of "one village, one product" and promotion of heritage and rural tourism－once promoted in the Republic of Korea, Japan and Thailand－could help China revitalize its economy today. These countries also worked out plans to revitalize their production during the 1997 Asian financial crisis and 2008 global financial crisis. China could consider doing the same.
In addition to the rural production sector, it is important to improve the education and healthcare sectors to ensure the long-term development of rural areas and rural population. First and foremost, it is important to improve primary and secondary education. An improved education system, especially providing quality education for rural children, will have a strong positive impact on many indicators of human development, including wages and labor productivity. It is also important to redesign policy to improve the nutrition level of rural residents. Providing nutritious and healthy diet, especially for children and women, is essential for improving human capital development. Community leaders and experts say better nutrition, good physical health and quality education translate into higher development.
A healthy rural environment, too, is important for rural revitalization. In the past, due to overuse of fertilizers and pesticides, and overexploitation of surface and underground water, the environment and natural resources in rural areas have been severely degraded. Rural areas can play a vital role improving rural and urban environmental quality through sustainable practices such as conservation agriculture and rainwater harvesting, which provide community members with incentives to manage the ecosystem and protect biodiversity.
Adopting community-based management systems for water and forest conservation can also promote shared prosperity, environmental sustainability, and social cohesion. Access to clean drinking water, and improving sanitation by, say, building more toilets and garbage disposal dumps should also be part of the rural revitalization plan.
In fact, improvement of rural living conditions can help people to stay, and even return to rural areas. China could learn from the European Union's Common Agricultural Policy to convert agricultural subsidies into investment in rural infrastructure to improve the environment. There is also a need to promote research and development, production and development of the value chains of nutritious foods such as vegetables, fruits, beans and seafood, not least because such measures are in compliance with World Trade Organization rules and regulations.
Moreover, ending abject poverty should not be a short-term goal for 2020; instead, it should be used as a launch pad for long-term elimination of poverty in all its forms. From this perspective, empowering and motivating villages and rural communities have proved to be one of the most successful strategies in revitalizing rural areas. And a decentralized governance system that is participatory, transparent and accountable, and balances fiscal powers with assigned functions will better respond to local needs and demands.
Finally, strengthening rural-urban linkages, including physical, economic, social and political linkages, is crucial for revitalizing rural areas and eliminating poverty in both rural and urban areas. Urban growth increases demand for food and spurs dietary changes, and rising demand creates opportunities for rural producers to improve their livelihoods. On the other hand, disruptions in value chains weaken rural-urban links and threaten food security and nutrition.
Besides, investment in rural infrastructure and intermediate towns, including good rural and feeder roads, power supply, storage facilities and communication networks, can strengthen rural-urban links and create economic hubs benefiting smallholders. So there is no reason why China cannot eliminate abject poverty by the end of this year.
The author is a chair professor at the China Agricultural University, and former director-general of the International Food Policy Research Institute.
The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.
HONG KONG NEWS