Who wrote that the Chinese are “the wisest and best governed people in the world”?1 That they perfected “morality” as well as “political economy” to such an extent that “in those fields we need to be their disciples”?2
Today such comments would be presumed to come from the worst kind of “China apologist”—a “shill”—at best deluded, at worst brainwashed. But the man who wrote those words is Voltaire, one of the fathers of the Enlightenment and, as such, a little bit of a father to us all, who live in the world the Enlightenment shaped.
That part of Western history is largely forgotten or ignored nowadays, but many Enlightenment philosophers, like Voltaire, were greatly inspired by China. This was the age when Jesuit missionaries, such as Matteo Ricci, spent extended amounts of time in China and learned enough about the country to translate most Chinese classics. It was a time when Europe was dazzled by a groundbreaking realization: that, on the other side of the world, there was an age-old civilization invoking the very principles of morality and reason the new philosophers praised.
While it would be a stretch to claim that the Enlightenment finds its sources in Chinese philosophy, its influence was certainly much more important than is acknowledged today. Voltaire himself was so enamored of Chinese thought that he kept a picture of Confucius facing him at all times while he worked—the only such picture in his office. He wrote that Confucius “spoke only of the purest morality”3 and that, “since his time,” no “finer rule of conduct has ever been given throughout the earth.”4 Others like Leibniz also had a “sustained fascination with China” and thought that “Chinese meritocracy held many lessons for Europeans.”5 As German historian Adolf Reichwein puts it in his book China and Europe, “Men discovered, to their astonishment, that more than two thousand years ago in China . . . Confucius had thought the same thoughts in the same manner, and fought the same battles. . . . Thus Confucius became the patron saint of [the] eighteenth century Enlightenment.”6
In today’s geopolitical context, the West’s love affair with China is long gone. But perhaps the China of today can still offer some examples of reason and morality, the attributes that made Enlightenment philosophers so admire that civilization. In this essay, I will focus on what has arguably been the most important and ambitious initiative in recent Chinese history: the drive to eliminate extreme poverty in the country.
Poverty Alleviation: China’s Overlooked Moonshot
Surprisingly little of substance has been written in the U.S. press about China’s poverty alleviation efforts, especially considering how much focus has been dedicated to these efforts inside the country. And yet, given the persistent challenges the United States faces in its own war on poverty, a better understanding of the Chinese approach could be fruitful.
China’s anti-poverty efforts have been a top priority over the last decade. Between launching his anti-poverty initiative in 2014 and his declaration that China had “secured a comprehensive victory in the fight against poverty”6 in February 2021, President Xi Jinping personally made fifty trips to inspect poverty alleviation progress in poorer areas of China. That works out to about one such trip every two months during that period, without a doubt many more than have been afforded to any other single initiative.
Also notable is the sheer amount of human resources dedicated to the task of poverty alleviation. According to China’s press agency, Xinhua, “more than 3 million first Party secretaries and resident working team members have been selected and dispatched to carry out targeted poverty alleviation.”7
Funding numbers are also dizzying and illustrative of the seriousness of the effort: the Chinese government directly invested ¥1.6 trillion ($252 billion) in the poverty alleviation drive over the course of the initiative. In addition to this, it made loans of ¥9.2 trillion ($1.4 trillion) for targeted poverty alleviation purposes including, for instance, ¥450 billion ($70 billion) in guaranteed microcredit loans to impoverished women. All in all, if one adds up all the types of funding dedicated to poverty alleviation, China spent close to ¥14 trillion on this effort.8 That’s the equivalent of about $2.2 trillion or, in a telling parallel, roughly what the Defense and State Departments jointly spent on post-9/11 military efforts.
In short, if China had a moonshot initiative this past decade, the poverty alleviation program was certainly it. Among all the projects they could have chosen, China’s leaders decided to make the complete eradication of extreme poverty their single most important program during these years.
Why Poverty Alleviation?
The anti-poverty initiative was long in the making, and didn’t start with Xi Jinping. Even though the population remained overwhelmingly poor under his leadership, Mao Zedong laid the foundations for China’s subsequent increase in wealth. Though controversial, his land reforms—the process of expropriating landlords to bring all land in China under collective ownership—played a large role in paving the way. Before the reforms, landlords—roughly 3.8 percent of Chinese households at the time—collectively owned twice as much land in China as poor farmers, even though the latter constituted 57.4 percent of households. It’s easy to see that, when the collective wealth of a nation in its agrarian phase is in so few hands, redistribution is a necessary first step to ensure future broad prosperity. In fact, it is well-documented that land reform has been a decisive factor for all the Asian economies that ultimately managed to enrich their populations.9
Moreover, when the Communists took power, only an estimated 20 percent of the Chinese population could read, due to decades of war and chaos. But by 1982, the Chinese literacy rate had risen to 68 percent.10 This was mostly achieved through mass literacy programs as well as efforts to modernize and simplify the Chinese language, for instance by the introduction of pinyin and simplified Chinese characters. Mao’s health reforms also were important foundations for China’s later increase in wealth. With initiatives such as the millions of “barefoot doctors,” China’s life expectancy rose from only around forty years in 1949 to sixty-five years in 1980.11 It is well-documented in economic theory that a sufficiently high life expectancy is one of the most important conditions for a transition to sustained income growth.12
While Mao’s reforms established an important basis for China’s subsequent enrichment, it became clear to Chinese leaders at the end of the 1970s that China’s economy required opening up in order to “develop the productive forces,” as they put it. China’s leader Deng Xiaoping famously said in a 1984 speech:
The superiority of the socialist system is demonstrated, in the final analysis, by faster and greater development of [the productive] forces than under the capitalist system. . . . One of our shortcomings after the founding of the People’s Republic was that we didn’t pay enough attention to developing the productive forces. Socialism means eliminating poverty. Pauperism is not socialism, still less communism.13
The results speak for themselves. Between 1978 and 2017, China’s economy expanded at an average rate of 9.5 percent per year, growing in size by almost thirty-five times.14 This led to a dramatic drop in the number of people living in extreme poverty from 770 million (80 percent of the population) in 1978 to 100 million people (7 percent of the population) in 2014.15
Xi Jinping thus began his mandate when much of the poverty reduction work had already been completed; he simply needed to bring it across the finish line. To do so, he decided on a “mass mobilization campaign”—a governance tool used by the Communist Party of China since even before the creation of the PRC. In the West, we would likely call this a “whole-of-society” effort. It not only involved an enormous amount of human and financial resources, but also touched virtually every corner of society, asking almost every actor in China—from companies to universities—to participate.
To be sure, the poverty relief initiatives had some pragmatic motivations. Chinese leaders, like most Chinese people, are extremely keen students of their country’s long history. As such, they know that there have been two major reasons for the downfall of Chinese dynasties in the past: uprisings by a populace dissatisfied with their living conditions, and internal rot among elites due to corruption, whatever shape it takes. Both causes are, of course, intimately linked.
Poverty rates are famously correlated with countless social ills like crime rates and increased health costs as well as poor economic performance indicators such as workforce productivity.11 As such, investing in poverty alleviation is likely one of the smartest investments any country can make to improve its collective future.
Beyond pragmatic considerations, the poverty alleviation efforts are also revealing of a rather traditional Chinese vision of the proper role of government. In one of his most famous sayings about governance, Confucius is reported (he never wrote anything himself) to have said that the three requisites of government are “enough food; enough military equipment; the people having confidence in the ruler.” When asked about their relative importance, Confucius stated unequivocally that military equipment could be abandoned first, then food, but never confidence in the ruler.16 To Confucius it is the very foundation of the state, which cannot exist without it.
This approach is echoed by Emperor Taizong (“Supreme Ancestor”) Li Shimin, the second emperor of the Tang Dynasty and one of the most revered in Chinese history. He famously compared government to a boat that could just as well be carried by water—the people—as turned over if it were steered wrongly. This story is known by every single Chinese person, and if you go visit the Summer Palace in Beijing, there is a stone boat on the lake for this very reason.
Western observers tend to mistake this view of the state for a purely self-serving agenda by the political elites. In China, however, confidence in the government is seen as critically important in Confucian governance principles, and doubtless played a significant role in the decision to prioritize the poverty alleviation efforts.
When President Xi Jinping started his mandate, the most important sources of public mistrust or resentment were corruption and the fact that many people were left behind when China got rich. From a Confucian perspective, it is therefore perfectly rational to prioritize these two above all else, since they’re the most consequential in terms of gaining public trust, itself the most important currency for a government.
One Income, Two Assurances, and Three Guarantees
China’s Targeted Poverty Alleviation program (TPA, the official name) can be summarized by the slogan “one income, two assurances, and three guarantees.” The slogan reflects the fact that the program doesn’t only understand poverty in terms of income but as a multidimensional issue. As such, to be deemed lifted from poverty, the hundred million people affected had to meet five indicators beyond income: the “two assurances” of food and clothing and the “three guarantees” of basic medical services, safe housing with drinking water and electricity, and free and compulsory education (which in China is for nine years).17
The key word in the Targeted Poverty Alleviation program is “targeted.” This approach comes directly from President Xi during a visit to Shibadong village in Hunan Province in November 2013. To tackle poverty, Xi told local government not to “use a grenade to blast a flea” but instead to “act as an embroiderer approaching an intricate design.”18 Concretely, what this means is that every single poor person in the country had to be individually identified, tracked, and assisted. This effort was launched in 2014 by sending eight hundred thousand party cadres to survey every household across the country. In 2015, that number increased to more than two million who were responsible for verifying the accuracy of the data classifying individuals as poor.19
Once the identification work was completed, the actual alleviation work started. It was done by sending three million party cadres to live in poor villages, forming 255,000 teams that resided on site.20 The concept was that every poor village had to have a resident team and every poor household an assigned cadre. Each cadre was responsible for only a handful of households so they could focus as much attention as possible on each of them.21 They typically lived in the same areas in humble conditions for one to three years at a time. Many of them weren’t used to the harsh realities of rural life in China’s poorer areas and some fell ill as a result. China’s State Council Information Office reported that more than 1,800 party members and officials lost their lives in the fight against poverty.22
In addition, the TPA program developed five core methods to lift people out of poverty: industry, relocation, ecological compensation, education, and social assistance.23
Industry means, quite simply, to develop the local economy in poorer areas with tools such as access to financing (loans, subsidies, and microcredit), technical training, new equipment and infrastructure, as well as new markets for local products.
Relocation occurred when people were located in areas so remote that any infrastructure development was unthinkable. Imagine small villages deep in the Himalayas or settlements in the middle of the Taklamakan Desert, one of the most hostile natural environments on earth. In those cases, China had no choice but to relocate those entire villages or settlements if it wanted their inhabitants to have any hope of escaping poverty. In fact, as part of the initiative, some 9.6 million people were relocated in 2.66 million new housing units built for the resettled families.24
Ecological compensation combines the anti-poverty initiative with another whole-of-society effort in China: the drive to transform the country into an “ecological civilization” in order to tackle climate change. These goals intersect mostly in China’s reforestation efforts, a tool to mitigate climate change: the country accounted for 25 percent of global growth in leaf area between 1990 and 2020.25 Since 2013, a total of 4.97 million hectares of farmland in poor areas has been returned to forest and grassland. A total of 1.1 million poor people have become forest rangers, and 23,000 poverty alleviation afforestation cooperatives have been formed.26
Education is a key to breaking the poverty cycle and, as such, China devoted enormous resources within the TPA to educational initiatives. Not only has China built new schools and better equipped existing ones, but it has also improved the quality of education in rural areas with a special focus on teachers. China has introduced programs such as the Special Post Program (to teach in impoverished areas upon graduation) and the National Training Program, which added an additional seventeen million rural teachers to the less-developed central and western regions.
Lastly, social assistance encompasses a wide range of initiatives. Chief among them is the Minimum Living Guarantee System (dibao), which provides a rural subsistence allowance of ¥5,962 per year to those who fit the criteria (about nineteen million people).27 Health care is also very important. After the TPA, basic medical insurance coverage of the poor is now over 99.9 percent, and all poverty-stricken populations now have access to medical services in their place of residence. The latter was achieved by sending 118,000 health workers to establish 3,700 new facilities and introduce 53,000 projects to improve health infrastructure.28
Individual freedom has always been the main ideological contrast between China’s collectivist culture and Western liberalism, which holds individual freedom as a central value. As discussed in the introduction of this article, however, the fact that the very same Chinese culture was a source of inspiration for Enlightenment thinkers—the very fathers of liberalism—presents some irony here.
Today, it has been forgotten that this debate was already largely settled at the time of the Enlightenment. Individual liberty was never meant to take precedence over all else like it arguably does today; instead, it was meant to be “checked and balanced” by other important priorities. This is perhaps best illustrated by the French national motto of “liberté, égalité, fraternité,” invented at the time of the French Revolution. The thinking was that “liberté” should not come at the cost of “fraternité” or “égalité” and vice versa.
This irony is lost on us when we accuse the Chinese of compromising individual freedom for other priorities. The debate at this point is well rehearsed: China will do something which it judges is for the common good and the West will inevitably blame them for doing so at the cost of individual liberty.
When I first arrived in China in 2007, these arguments were primarily directed at authorities’ push to modernize the country’s cities by evacuating inhabitants from old, dilapidated areas so they could be razed in favor of modern housing. It didn’t matter to Western commentators that the vast majority of affected people (my in-laws included) were happy to leave their small, toilet-free dwellings with communal kitchens in favor of apartments with modern amenities. The focus was on the small minority that wasn’t. Not to dismiss their concerns—and more often than not, the local authorities didn’t dismiss them either—but from today’s vantage point, looking at the sparkling new Chinese cities and people’s dramatically improved living conditions, it is extremely difficult to argue that it wasn’t all for the better.
The anti-poverty initiative has similar features. An important part of the plan has included infrastructure development, not only physical infrastructure such as roads or internet access (post-initiative, 98 percent of poor villages in China had access to fiber internet6) but also social fabric infrastructure like hospitals and schools. This makes sense: how can you ever expect to lift yourself out of poverty if you can’t use a car, don’t have access to the internet, or can’t send your kids to school? In concrete terms, China lifted people out of poverty first and foremost by identifying and reducing the barriers preventing people from enriching themselves, rather than merely giving handouts—in short, by following the ancient adage, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” China might not see eye to eye with the West on individual freedom, but it certainly agrees with American conservative principles of personal responsibility. The difference is that, for China, the government has a large role to play in creating the material and societal preconditions that allow people to exercise that responsibility.
As we’ve seen, in some cases the root of poverty was that people were located in areas so remote that they had to be relocated if they were to have any hope for a better life. Were some mistakes made along the way? Undoubtedly—no matter their living conditions, it can’t have been easy for some people to leave their ancestral place of residence. The issue, however, is that by living there they often not only condemned themselves to a life of crushing poverty, but their children and their entire family as well. If we look at it from a moral standpoint, anyone intellectually honest should at least admit that the answer to this problem is far from obvious. China chose to answer it the way it did, but there were no easy answers. The very fact that it is undeniably a moral dilemma with arguments on both sides makes simple condemnation difficult.
Looking at proportions is also interesting. When the initiative started, roughly 7 percent of the Chinese population was living in extreme poverty. By that point, China had adopted its own version of a market economy for about thirty-five years. This indicates that the poverty was indeed deeply entrenched, because otherwise those people should have already been lifted out of poverty alongside their fellow citizens. This is confirmed by the fact that this extreme poverty rate is fairly similar to that of many other market economies.
A comparable metric in the United States is what the Census Bureau defines as “deep poverty”: those living in a household with a total income below 50 percent of the poverty threshold.29 It consistently stands at around 6 percent of the U.S. population—almost the same as China’s rate when the anti-poverty drive started. Even in France, easily one of the most generous countries in the world in terms of social spending, there are two million people defined by France’s national statistics bureau as living in “great poverty,”30 or roughly 3 percent of the population. Government spending accounts for over 60 percent of France’s GDP,31 the majority of which is spent on various social benefits.32 If one country in the world should have solved extreme poverty, it is France.
What this means is that, in most economic contexts, eradicating structural poverty can likely be done only with the types of heavy-handed policies that China adopted. It is after all the only approach we’ve seen work to date, as China has brought its rate of extreme poverty down to essentially zero.
We often ask the Chinese about the cost of their initiatives in terms of individual freedom, but rarely reflect on the costs we incur for the sake of the latter. We just uncovered one: a certain share of the population living in extreme poverty. Is it worth it? We may choose that it is, but, inversely, don’t the Chinese have a right to choose that it isn’t?
What Poverty Alleviation Says about China Today
Most religions, especially Abrahamic ones, put a very strong emphasis on helping the poor in their social doctrines. It would be highly disingenuous for the West to suggest that, because it is the Chinese who did it, somehow it isn’t commendable. Achieving zero extreme poverty in China, the most populated country in the world, which just forty years ago was as poor as the poorest countries in Africa, is an achievement on a scale the world has rarely, if ever, seen.
This transformation has even led some high-ranking Catholic figures such as Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, the current chancellor of the Holy See’s Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, to declare that China is “the best implementer of the social doctrine of the Church” and to describe the country as “hold[ing] the common good above all else.”33
Sánchez Sorondo faced a barrage of criticism for this remark. First Things ran an article arguing that we shouldn’t let “defenses of the ‘common good’ . . . slip into apologias for authoritarianism.”34 Just like that, we were back to our familiar individual freedom versus collectivism debate.
Many people today go even further, claiming it is our duty to impose change on the Chinese so they conform to liberal values and principles. Even if the Chinese government was demonstrably the best at looking out for the interests of the Chinese as a collective, their doing so in an illiberal fashion means we see it as our duty to change their system, even if it means ending up with a government under which the Chinese are worse off. In such moments, it seems that we are the ones ready to compromise morality and reason for the sake of ideology.
Such attitudes also ignore another fundamental lesson of Chinese history. Many have tried to change Chinese culture in the past, but it typically ends up the other way around. A salient example is when the Manchus, an ethnic group distinct from the Hans with its very own culture and language, conquered China in the seventeenth century and established the Qing dynasty. Did China become Manchu? On the contrary, Manchus became so sinicized that they virtually disappeared as a distinct identity.
Even Communism didn’t make much of a dent in the culture itself. It transformed China, but the underlying culture is strongly intact. Visitors to Mao Zedong’s childhood home in Hunan province can go to the classroom where he and his peers used to study. There is a very small portrait of Mao on a shelf somewhere on the side of the classroom, but whose portrait is the center of attention, in the middle of the classroom in lieu of a blackboard? Confucius.
These considerations should provoke further reflection. Are we ready, like our Enlightenment forefathers, to respect China as it is and accept their differences? Maybe even sometimes find inspiration in how they solve problems we too face? Or do we want to insist that they become like us? The answer to these questions, probably more than any other, will shape the rest of the twenty-first century.
This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume VI, Number 1 (Spring 2022): 137–148.
A quotation from First Things was corrected on February 23, 2022.
1 Voltaire, Lettres philosophiques (Paris: 1778).
2 Voltaire, Dictionnaire philosophique (Paris: 1778).
3 T. A. Peterson, “How China Revolutionized France: The Evolution of an Idea from the Jesuit Figurists to the Enlightenment Sinophiles and the Consequences” (PhD diss., Washington State University, 2009).
4 Tae-Hyeon Song, “Voltaire’s View of Confucius” (2014).
5 Peterson, “How China Revolutionized France.”
6 John M. Hobson, The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).
7 The State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, Poverty Alleviation: China’s Experience and Contribution (2021). Wai wen chu ban she.
8 State Council Information Office.
9 Joe Studwell, How Asia Works: Success and Failure in the World’s Most Dynamic Region (London: Profile Books, 2014).
10 A. John Jowett, “Patterns of Literacy in the People’s Republic of China,” GeoJournal 18 no. 4 (1989): 417–27.
11 Aaron O’Neill, “China: Life Expectancy 1850–2020 Statistic,” Statista, September 17, 2019.
12 Matteo Cervellati and Uwe Sunde, “Life Expectancy and Economic Growth: The Role of the Demographic Transition,” Journal of Economic Growth 16, no. 2 (2011): 99–133.
13 Deng Xiaoping, “Building a Socialism with a Specifically Chinese Character,” People’s Daily, June 30, 1984.
14 John Ross, China’s Great Road: Lessons for Marxist Theory and Socialist Practices (Glasgow: Praxis Press, 2021).
15 State Council Information Office.
16 Stephen C. Angle, “Social and Political Thought in Chinese Philosophy,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, July 21, 2016.
17 Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, Serve the People: The Eradication of Extreme Poverty in China, Studies on Socialist Construction 1, July 2021.
18 Serve the People.
19 New China Research/Xinhua News Agency, Chinese Poverty Alleviation Studies: A Political Economy Perspective (February 2021).
20 State Council Information Office.
21 Serve the People.
22 State Council Information Office.
23 Serve the People.
24 State Council Information Office.
25 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Global Forest Resources Assessment 2020: Main Report (Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2020).
26 State Council Information Office.
27 State Council Information Office.
28 State Council Information Office.
29 Center for Poverty and Inequality Research at the University of California, Davis, “What Is ‘Deep Poverty’?”
30 Julien Blasco and Sébastien Picard, Environ 2 millions de personnes en situation de grande pauvreté en France en 2018, Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques, May 27, 2021.
31 Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques, “Dépenses et recettes publiques.”
32 IMF, Financial Access Survey.
33 “Msgr. Sanchez Sorondo: China, the Best Implementer of the Social Doctrine of the Church,” AsiaNews, July 2, 2018.
34 Matthew Schmitz, “Is China a Model of the Common Good?,” First Things, November 26, 2019.
About the Author Arnaud Bertrand is an entrepreneur who founded HouseTrip (sold to TripAdvisor) and Me & Qi. He lives in China.