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China's Rural Poverty Elimination Drive Stalls in Minority Habitats

After slashing its rural poverty-stricken population by an impressive 80 percent in 20 years, China finds itself mired in the fight against entrenched destitution in the remote interior, especially among ethnic minorities.

With relatively large impoverished populations and fewer opportunities for upward mobility, these areas would remain destitute, said Fan Xiaojian, deputy chief of the State Council Leading Group of Poverty Alleviation and Development on Thursday, at a symposium on the situations and policies of poverty alleviation.

"Most of these areas are sparsely populated habitats for minority nationalities, where the destitute and low-income population comprises more than 40 percent of local rural residents," he said.

Overall, only 6 percent of the country's rural population or 57 million were either destitute, officially defined as earning no more than 683 yuan (about US$92) per year, or low-income, earning no more than 889 yuan per year (about US$120).

The international poverty line is US$1 per day.

Of China's 592 officially designated key poverty-alleviation counties, 267 are inhabited by ethnic minorities, official figures reveal.

Unlike other regions that have taken the lead to lift their inhabitants out of poverty, Fan said that these minority habitats are more closed to the outside world, less developed and often plagued by an adverse natural environment.

"Loss of land, rising living costs triggered by market fluctuations and insufficient infrastructure facilities for social services often compound the difficulty of poverty elimination," he said.

The government has drawn up preferential policies, including taxation privileges, and increased financial support to these areas. This year, the minimum subsistence allowance, which was formerly reserved for urban dwellers, has started to expand to rural areas.

Apart from the habitats for minority nationalities, Fan said that the areas marked by stone mountains, deserts, loess plateaus, high-altitude and low-temperature hilly regions are also tough nuts to crack.

The cost of poverty alleviation in these areas is very high as lots of people need to be relocated to somewhere with a better natural environment and more resources, he said.

Fan said about 148,000 poverty-stricken villages were scattered in such areas, where nearly 33 percent of residents are either destitute or low-income. He did not provide further details.

He said that the government should channel more funds into poverty alleviation so that more rural impoverished citizens could share in the country's economic and social development.

Official figures showed that between 2000 and 2006, the rural destitute population in China declined by 33.1 percent, to 21.48 million. The number of low-income rural residents shrunk by 42.9 percent, to 33.5 million.

However, the wealth gap within the less-developed interiors has been constantly widening. For instance, the urban-rural wealth disparity in northwestern Gansu Province expanded from 3.44:1 to 4.18:1 between 2001 and 2006, much faster than the national average, which itself grew from 2.9:1 to 3.3:1.

In Yushu Tibetan Prefecture of northwestern Qinghai Province, urban dwellers earned five times as much as rural residents in 2006.

"The yawning wealth gap is offsetting the decrease in the rural poverty-stricken population," Fan warned.

The 2006 Statistical Report of China's National Economy and Social Development showed the inflation-adjusted per capita net income of rural residents was 3,587 yuan in 2006, up 7.4 percent year-on-year while that of urban residents rose 10.4 percent to 11,759 yuan.

For rural families, the Engel's coefficient -- the share of income spent on food -- was 43 percent. For urban residents, it was 35.8 percent.

But Fan was confident about poverty reduction in China, saying that the fight against poverty had raised broader concern from all walks of life.

A good sign, Fan said, was that the per capita average net income for the country's key poverty-alleviation counties had grown by more than 6 percent for four consecutive years, well above the national average for all poverty-stricken countries.

(Xinhua News Agency November 23, 2007)

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