China’s Movement to End Poverty

By UPoor Think Tank China Task Force


The UPoor Think Tank’s China Task Force was established to study the Chinese revolutionary process to identify lessons for our struggle. Many things about the Chinese situation are extremely different from our context in the US, but we can draw lessons from their cadres’ use of strategy and tactics. China’s revolutionary process is at a very different stage from our own, and it started from a very different material situation than what we are experiencing in the United States. At the same time, the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) is in escalating conflict with the same US State, which is the primary state power wielded in service of the global capitalist class. This is also the same US State whose violence and threat of violence is our fundamental obstacle in our pursuit of power for poor people.

The Reform and Opening Period initiated by Deng Xiaoping in 1978 focused on using foreign direct investment to develop the forces of production in China. This helped to grow and develop the Chinese economy and raised 770 million rural residents out of extreme poverty. This also increased income and wealth inequality in China. When Xi Jinping, the current general secretary of the CPC and President of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) came into office in 2012, there were still 98.99 million people living in absolute poverty in China, out of a total population of about 1.4 billion. These were commonly in isolated and undeveloped rural areas and regions that faced the most extreme challenges. This population was the focus of the successful Extreme Poverty alleviation project, which set and achieved the goal of lifting all 98.99 million out of poverty before the end of 2020.

This article will focus on the recent work of the CPC to continue the revolutionary process in China, especially during Xi’s tenure since 2012. We see the Campaign to Eradicate Extreme Poverty as having multiple goals, including the strategic development of party cadre with the clarity, connectedness, commitment, and competence to continue their revolutionary process forward across generations and also to continually develop a state apparatus that can meet the needs of a huge diversity of people, with a particular focus on the poor. There are many lessons we can draw from this campaign in both of these areas, which we identify as areas for future study.

Example of the Chinese and US State’s relationship with the Poor

There is a notable and rare consensus of the Democratic and Republican parties of the United States that China is a threat. Both parties see it as a source, albeit in different forms, of diverting attention away or at times scapegoating domestic issues to ‘foreign enemies.’ In the U.S. our culture of pragmatism prevents us from seeing this integral relationship between domestic and foreign policy ‘issues,’ and is made to believe they are separate when in fact it is the very same U.S. state purporting and implementing these policies with overlapping goals. The scapegoating and propaganda on China from our ruling class is a clear divide and conquer strategy for keeping the global poor and dispossessed disorganized. The specific points of criticism made on China, especially on domestic issues impacting the poor, parallels points of weakness for our ruling class.  

COVID response 

China’s Zero Covid response was heavily criticized in Western media, and the spike in cases and increase in deaths at the end of 2022 and beginning of 2023 has been highlighted as evidence of the policy’s failure. However, according to January 2023 WHO data, China had suffered a total of 111,171 deaths from COVID, compared with 1,093,540 deaths in the United States, a country with less than one-third the population. China’s evolution of its COVID policy was responsive to the evolving threat and best public health information available. In spite of this, there were almost daily reports and analysis in US media characterizing the Zero Covid policy as “harsh”, “faltering”, “authoritarian”.

Housing and Homelessness

Similarly, mainstream reporting on China in the US consistently describes the Chinese housing system as failing or in crisis. Yet one way to see differences between how the United States and China address housing includes looking at the two government’s responses to a housing crisis. In 2008, the US government responded to the housing crisis largely by bailing out the large banks that had created the problem. People continued to be foreclosed on, and many of these properties were purchased by real estate investors who used their new assets to fuel renewed waves of gentrification and speculation.

In contrast, China’s financial sector is dominated by State Owned Enterprises, which creates a wide range of additional tools for the PRC to influence capital-intensive industries like real estate. The US State also heavily shapes the real estate and housing market, but it generally prioritizes subsidizing capitalist accumulation. Since the reform and opening period, when China started allowing private developers to enter the real estate market, the rate of housing development and standard of living have both increased across China. The government has intervened in the housing market to curb speculation, moderate growth, and avoid a housing crash. The type of speculation that drove the 2008 crisis across much of the rest of the globe was not allowed in China and the level of other financial risks that developers are permitted to take have been reined in even more since then. 

During his 2017 CPC National Congress address, Xi Jinping declared, “Housing is for living in, not for speculation.” This principle has been the guide for PRC policy which has since served to rein in speculation and investor profiteering in the housing sector, which is fundamentally for providing housing. China’s largest real estate developer, Evergrande, has fallen into challenges in part because the PRC announced new restrictions on the amount of debt it could take on. Evergrande’s CEO has lost a huge amount of his personal wealth in the process, but the company, under new leadership, has continued to build housing while working to restructure debt. The PRC set rent regulations to restrict increases to not more than 5%, and many provincial governments have purchased housing units from Evergrande to convert to low rent social housing, especially for young people. The current plan is for 6.5 million such units to be added across 40 major cities by 2025.

China has a household registration system called Hukou which structures its deployment of important systems like education, healthcare, and housing. This system has many critics, largely having to do with its rigidity and restrictions on which region or city people can live and access services. However, if you are in your registered region, the government has a mandate to find you housing. This means that migrant populations seeking employment or opportunities in other parts of the country are the most likely to experience homelessness, away from their designated social safety net. There are efforts through Xi Jinping’s Common Prosperity agenda to reform this system, but it will take time to be fully implemented. Even in its current state, when Chinese people are in their registered region, there largely isn’t a problem of homelessness in the way that we see in the United States with people living on the streets or in housing encampments. Even among migrants, a substantial shelter system exists to keep people off of the streets.

Western news coverage of these issues characterizes the Chinese policies as failures, reflecting a lack of democracy or accountability to the desires of the people. What we see when we dig deeper is a deep level of collaboration between the PRC and CPC and the people of China. Certainly not that there are no issues, but that the earnest goal pursued by both is raising the standard of living of especially the poorest members of society. An excellent example of this is the Campaign to Eradicate Extreme Poverty.  Here in this country, there might be a temptation to compare this to Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” in the 1960s, but those programs were piecemeal, often discriminatory and funded only at a tiny fraction of the rate that the US war in Vietnam was funded. In his Beyond Vietnam speech, Rev. Dr. King said “and you may not know it, my friends, but it is estimated that we spend $500,000 to kill each enemy soldier, while we spend only fifty-three dollars for each person classified as poor, and much of that fifty-three dollars goes for salaries to people that are not poor.” Our movement to end poverty in the US can draw inspiration and many lessons from this campaign in China.

Historical Context and Significance of 2013-2020 Campaign to Eradicate Extreme Poverty

Xi Jingping initiated the massive undertaking to eradicate extreme poverty in China when he first took office as President in 2013. However, this campaign is better understood as a continuation of an approximately 100 year struggle (since the founding of the CPC in 1921) by the poor of China to take control of State Power and to attempt to wield it in the best interest of the people of China. The campaign was in total alignment with the revolutionary trajectory of China. The Long March from 1934 to 1935 was a period of strategic retreat to the countryside which consolidated and developed the core revolutionary cadre who went on to lead the Red Army to victory in 1949. During this period of retreat, the Red Army partnered with peasants along the way to redistribute land and other resources from rural warlords to collective ownership and management. 

In addition to this history, Xi’s personal experiences and development as CPC cadre also heavily informed the campaign. Xi’s family went through many challenges during the cultural revolution and at the age of 15, as an alternative to juvenile detention, he volunteered to work in the countryside in Yanan. He lived a quite brutal existence there in a cave dwelling called a yaodong and did manual farm labor until he was 22. While this was difficult, it established his deep connection with and commitment to the rural poor. He joined the CPC and took on local leadership at the age of 20. Throughout his career as an official in municipal and provincial government, he always focused on economic development centering the poorest parts of the region he served.

Here, Xi Jinping reflects on the contemporary campaign’s continuity with the strategy of the Party’s work during the revolutionary war and the Long March. 

“Our guideline should be clear: we Communists must conform to the common will of the people in order to represent the interest of the people. Only then can we organize and guide the people and fully develop the core leadership role of Party organizations. During the years of the revolutionary war, our Party was able to unite rural people and gain their support because the Party led the people to liberation. By penalizing local tyrants and distributing farmlands to the peasants, and launching land reform, the party brought tangible benefits to peasants. In today’s ever-changing situation, economic development and common prosperity are their common aspiration. So, rural Party organizations must lead the vast numbers of farmers to join in the cause of developing a commodity economy, promoting material and cultural progress, and forging ahead toward prosperity for all.” Xi Jinping, Up and Out of Poverty

This campaign was about meeting the needs of the people, but also deeply rooted in the strategic development of the Party through the development of cadre for party leadership, which is essential for the success of its ongoing revolutionary project.  Also in Up and Out of Poverty, Xi Jinping reflected, “When we talk of cohesion, we must also speak of our core strength; in the countryside, it lies in rural Party organizations. Whether our rural Party organizations can develop their core strength is directly related to our cohesion in eliminating poverty and seeking prosperity.” 

How did they actually do it?

This task of moving nearly 100 million people out of extreme poverty in only 7 years (2013-2020) was a massive endeavor. The CPC set out to accomplish this goal through the precise identification of people in extreme poverty and also through the flexible use of the state apparatus. Rather than relying on sampling to document trends on average, they made connections with the specific individuals, families and communities suffering from poverty and worked on specific solutions that people could play a role in enacting.

The Communist Party of China is structured as a broad-based political organization pursuing its goals of developing a moderately prosperous socialist state. It includes more than 96 million members, organized within a system which includes more than 40,000 local grassroots organizations that engage in participatory, “whole process” democracy and local policy development. The party apparatus works in collaboration with the government of the People’s Republic of China and many members of the party also hold government positions to use state resources to implement the goals developed through Party organizing and debate. The close partnership between the CPC and the PRC is often red-baited and characterized as autocracy. However, it is this close partnership that enables the state apparatus to be wielded for strategic organizing campaigns like the campaign to eradicate extreme poverty and also the current Common Prosperity campaign. 

Between 2014 and 2015, 2 million of these party cadres were involved in identifying and verifying the poverty status of households across the country. In the process, they identified 14 areas of extreme poverty, 832 impoverished counties and 128,000 impoverished villages. After identification, 225,000 teams were deployed including 3 million cadres who relocated as poverty elimination commissioners. They worked with nearly 2 million township cadres and millions of village-level cadres. They estimate that approximately 10 million cadres participated for periods of one to three years, often living in very harsh conditions. An estimated 1,800 cadres lost their lives.

The cadres were working with government resources at their disposal and metrics for poverty collected and plans developed were not limited to individual or household income. This broader framework is summarized in the slogan: one income, two assurances, and three guarantees. This means that in “addition to a minimum income, China’s poverty alleviation program ensures that five other indicators are met: 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.”

This level of cadre deployment both served to develop the cadre deployed, to build their commitment, clarity, connectedness and competence through the execution of a concretely defined but very difficult task, and to build grassroots rural leadership. This dual goal is key for distinguishing this campaign from one of charity or a “state handout.” The campaign included something called the Ferryman strategy which is critical as a “poor organizing the poor” element.

The Ferryman Strategy: Cadre deployment and the poor as agents of poverty elimination

One essential element of this campaign that aligns with its goal of cadre and party development is the Ferryman Strategy. The Ferrymen are the local party cadre responsible for implementing the campaign at the village level. The massive urbanization in China over the past 40 years left many rural party organizations depleted. The investment in Ferrymen with critical responsibilities at the very local level was aimed at addressing this gap. The responsibilities of the role includes implementation of policy, allocation of resources, addressing concerns of the poor. They are responsible for coordination across multiple governmental bodies. The term Ferrymen reflects the two-way nature of their role, that they bring resources and support but also serve as a conduit for communicating back, for voicing the demands of the poor and incorporating those perspectives and insights into the policy design and improvement.

Here are a few key excerpts from a government report on the details of the campaign that describe the Ferryman Strategy:

“Unlike many countries that rely heavily on non-governmental organizations and international assistance to help the poor, China relies on its administrative personnel at various levels to fight poverty on the frontlines and boost rural development. These personnel serve as a link between “national governance” and “rural self-governance.” China’s village-based poverty relief cadres are “ferrymen.” 

“The poor are not merely recipients of poverty alleviation, but also serve as agents of poverty elimination and prosperity. Looking back at China’s fight against absolute poverty, the key is to recognize the “duality” of the subject and the object of the poor, and utilize external forces to stimulate inner motivation.”

The cadres working on these projects were in communication at the grassroots and individual level with ferrymen and sharing the specific needs. This led to insights and creative projects that had so many ripple effects from reforestation to e-commerce and tourism in rural areas. Further, it reflects that the real basis of the revolutionary process in China continues to be the unity of the poor established by the CPC. This deep unity continues with dedicated commitment from party leadership and in 2020 near the end of the campaign there were 255,000 village-based working groups largely coordinated with the CPC.

Forward Together!

The cumulative effect of this massive undertaking was that before the end of 2020, even with the unanticipated challenge of the COVID pandemic, Xi Jinping was able to report that the campaign had reached its goal of lifting 98.99 million out of extreme poverty. With the level of individual family data they had compiled, they even accomplished this accounting for some families having advanced out of poverty then sliding back in. They went back to support those families to ensure the thorough accomplishment of this important goal. Having met this goal, the CPC is continuing to push forward to new goals for raising the standard of living in the county under the Common Prosperity agenda. 

As we build the movement to end poverty in the United States, this example in China can help to illustrate what is concretely possible when state power is taken, held and wielded by the poor and dispossessed. This campaign that centered the revolutionary social force was both made possible by and developed party cadre 100 years after the founding of the CPC. The power of this example and the other policies focused on the poor of China also shed light on what is at stake for the ruling class in the US State’s “strategic competition” with China. We anticipate redbaiting and misinformation around China will escalate as our crises deepen in the US, so our cadre must understand anti-China propaganda as a “divide and conquer” tactic of our ruling class. 


This is a pretty extended report and a few related interviews

Breakthrough News Rana interview Ting Chak

CGTN on Extreme Poverty Elimination

This is an article that connects this project with the original PPC:

About the UPoor Think Tank: The current economic and political conditions are demanding that the University of the Poor engage in a systematic and strategic study of the situation we face. The University of the Poor Think Tank researches and analyzes the key problems confronting revolutionaries in the US in order to help develop the foundation for a cadre organization of revolutionaries.

The China Task Force of the Think Tank studies the key lessons of the Chinese revolutionary process. Of particular interest is the success of the Communist Party of China in forging revolutionary cadre who are able to safeguard and develop the revolutionary process in China.

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