China 2098: Cooperative Food Factories (中国2098:合作社的粮食工厂), 2019–2022. Credit: Fan Wennan.

How Targeted Poverty Alleviation Has Changed the Structure of Rural Governance in China

Wang Xiaoyi

Wang Xiaoyi (王晓毅) is a professor at the Institute of Sociology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. His research focuses on poverty alleviation, rural governance, and the many aspects of rural development, from rural industries in coastal southeast China to social life in the grasslands and pastoral areas of northwest China, with a strong practical orientation. He has also worked in poverty alleviation and environmental protection work for numerous international organisations and Chinese social organisations.

‘How Targeted Poverty Alleviation Has Changed the Structure of Rural Governance in China’ (精准扶贫如何改变乡村治理结构) was originally published in Wenhua Zongheng (文化纵横), issue no. 3 (June 2020).

Unlike the Chinese government’s conventional poverty alleviation efforts, the targeted poverty alleviation (精准扶贫, jīngzhǔn fúpín) program, launched in 2013, has exhibited the distinct characteristics of campaign-style governance. This program set the eradication of extreme poverty as the central objective around which socioeconomic policy was coordinated in poor, rural areas. At the end of 2020, after eight years of arduous work, this goal was achieved.

To fulfil the designated aims of targeted poverty alleviation within the established deadlines, local governments vigorously mobilised human and material resources and implemented exceptional measures.[1] In many localities, governments employed quasi-military methods to advance targeted poverty alleviation efforts, disrupting many existing conventions. Although campaign-style governance often features extraordinary measures and can yield extraordinary results, some research suggests that this style of governance is difficult to sustain into regular periods of governance. Regardless, campaign-style governance can still have an important impact on conventional governance structures.

This article will examine the impact that targeted poverty alleviation’s campaign-style governance has had and will have on rural governance. First, the article provides an overview of the existing problems in rural governance. Second, the article analyses the extent to which the campaign has changed the existing structure of rural governance. Finally, the article assesses whether the mechanisms of governance adopted under targeted poverty alleviation will be able to adapt to normal conditions after the campaign ends and have a lasting impact on rural governance. This article argues that, due to the success of targeted poverty alleviation in addressing weaknesses in rural governance and achieving its objectives, the campaign has the potential to effect long-term changes through institutionalisation of its practices and methodologies.

The Dilemmas of Rural Governance

Before the implementation of the targeted poverty alleviation strategy, both rural governance and poverty alleviation policies faced serious dilemmas. The repeal of agricultural taxes in 2006 led to the disintegration of rural society, numerous difficulties in the traditional systems of rural governance, and the detachment between the power and resources of community-level governments and their social responsibility.[2] The distribution of poverty alleviation resources targeted primarily at counties and villages that were designated as poverty-stricken or poor produced awkward dynamics where local governments and village organisations vied for such designations to gain access to resources as well as imbalances in resource allocation, where poor households in undesignated villages were overlooked. As a result, tensions have existed to varying degrees between rural villages and between rural villages and the state.

Rural villages are often thought of as living communities, where rural residents maintain the village through practices based on shared values and reciprocity as well as strong local institutions. In the Chinese sociologist and anthropologist Fei Xiaotong’s (费孝通) conception of rural China and US political scientist and anthropologist James C. Scott’s depiction of the moral economy of the peasant, rural life is represented as largely distanced from the state. However, in reality, China’s villages have not been so distant from the state. While villages have featured characteristics of living communities, they have also existed under the rule of the state. Moreover, as the state’s governance capabilities have improved, it has tended to increasingly govern villages directly. The strength of the state’s rural governance has largely been determined by its ability to administer its rules and authority on the villages.

Small and large communities are often thought of as being in a zero-sum relationship, where state intervention reduces the autonomy of small communities and the autonomy of small communities minimises the state’s influence on villages. However, thus far in the twenty-first century, the relationship has not been so clear in China, as both small and large communities have struggled in rural governance.

As living communities, China’s villages weakened and even disintegrated in the decades following the rural reform initiated in the 1980s. The rural reform had two key elements: the implementation of the household responsibility system (包产到户, bāochǎn dào hù) in agricultural production and the establishment of village committees (村民委员会, cūnmín wěiyuánhuì). The first measure replaced the collective farming system implemented during the land reform process of the 1950s and allowed individual households to contract land and have greater autonomy over their agricultural production, laying the foundation for the market economy in rural areas. Meanwhile, the second measure aimed to rebuild the village community through villagers’ self-governance. However, the success of these two measures diverged significantly. On the one hand, land contracting and household production advanced continuously, with farmers’ individualisation being driven by the market economy and the greater autonomy and social mobility of village members; on the other hand, numerous difficulties were encountered with the village committees. These bodies were created to protect villagers, but amid the disintegration of village communities, village leaders in most areas either stopped serving as village organisers or took advantage of their positions to secure private benefits. The number of village organisations capable of providing leadership decreased significantly and villagers were often unable to hold village officials accountable; meanwhile, village officials also struggled to serve villagers and to effectively implement government policies intended to benefit farmers at the community level.

At the same time that small communities grew weaker, the state’s effectiveness in rural governance also decreased during the three decades following the rural reform, reaching a low point in the early twenty-first century. The repeal of agricultural tax collection in 2006 marked the beginning of the policy of ‘industry nurturing agriculture, cities supporting rural areas’ (工业反哺农业、城市反哺农村, gōngyè fǎnbǔ nóngyè, chéngshì fǎnbǔ nóngcūn), intended to direct more resources from the urban centres into rural areas to both advance their development and infrastructure as well as improve social welfare, through the implementation of various protections, subsidies, and grants for rural communities and individuals. In practice, however, the state struggled to realise these aims. Although transfer payments from the central government to poverty-stricken areas greatly increased and the state improved its provision of social welfare, the state struggled to define clear policy goals and to develop effective mechanisms to allocate resources to target populations.[3] For example, subsidies aimed at encouraging grain production had a limited impact on farmers’ enthusiasm as the central government struggled to define grain-producing farmers and only granted subsidies according to the size of farmers’ contracted land. Similarly, the rural subsistence allowance system, intended to meet the basic living needs of low-income households, encountered several obstacles, including difficulties in collecting data on household income and identifying eligible households, along with corruption, with rural officials providing preferential treatment towards family members and friends and even using the allowance as a bargaining tool against farmers. As a result, the rural subsistence allowance was not efficient in being directed to those most in need. To put it simply, it was difficult for the state to realise its rural development and welfare goals through the existing administrative system.

The allocation of poverty alleviation resources should have been guided by precision and fairness, however, in practice, the allocation was influenced by many other factors. The central government focused on providing support to poverty-stricken areas, issuing special poverty alleviation funding to adjacent poor areas and those counties, villages, and households designated as key poverty-stricken targets. Following the Seven-Year Priority Poverty Alleviation Program, which aimed to lift 80 million people out of absolute poverty from 1994 to 2000, poverty alleviation resources were mainly channelled to the designated key poverty-stricken counties. This produced an adverse consequence, where rural counties competed against each other to be designated as poverty-stricken, a phenomenon referred to in China as ‘fighting to wear the “poverty hat”’ (争戴贫困帽子, zhēng dài pínkùn màozi); a few county governments even celebrated their entry into the list of poverty-stricken counties. Unfortunately, it was often the case that the identification of poverty-stricken counties or villages was not only a matter of low income or lagging development, but was also influenced by pressures from various and, at times, rival interest groups. With various interest groups and parties vying for resources, it was difficult to effectively realise poverty alleviation goals.

After completing its first ten-year plan for poverty alleviation from 2001 to 2010, the approach of the central government shifted, as it raised the poverty line significantly, first in 2010 and then again in 2013, and set a clear timetable to eradicate absolute poverty and complete the building of a moderately prosperous society in all respects by 2020.[4] Under the new standard, the scope of poverty alleviation expanded greatly as the population considered impoverished increased more than five-fold, from less than 30 million people to 160 million people; the incidence of rural poverty similarly increased from less than 3 percent to over 17 percent; and the number of poverty-stricken counties increased to 832. In addition, the qualitative standard for poverty alleviation was also raised, now aiming for ‘two assurances and three guarantees’ (两不愁三保障, liǎng bù chóu sān bǎozhàng), meaning that, by 2020, the rural poor would be assured adequate food and clothing, and guaranteed access to the public education system, basic medical services, and safe housing, including running water and electricity (some localities also developed specific guarantees based on local conditions, such as a guaranteed supply of safe drinking water in arid areas). To lift such a large number of poor people out of poverty in a short amount of time, the state had to greatly increase the amount of resources that it allocated to the task. From 2015 to 2020, poverty alleviation funding from the central government increased on average by 20 billion yuan (approximately $2.8 billion) per year. More importantly, the types of poverty alleviation funding were diversified, including integrated funds, social funds, and various financial instruments. The total amount of resources invested by the state in poverty alleviation was unprecedented, although it generated new challenges for rural governance. However, realising the poverty alleviation goals was more complex and difficult than simply increasing incomes, and required fundamental changes to the system of rural governance in poor areas.

Rural Governance under Targeted Poverty Alleviation

In 2013, Communist Party of China (CPC) General Secretary Xi Jinping proposed the concept of targeted poverty alleviation. Shortly thereafter, in 2015, he specified that this policy required precision in the following six areas: first, in the identification of the poor, ensuring that the recipients of support were, in fact, those in need; second, in the alignment of projects and aid to the needs of the poor; third, in the provision and use of funding; fourth, in the implementation of measures appropriate for each household; fifth, in the dispatching of party officials to carry out poverty alleviation measures in individual villages; and, sixth, in the evaluations of whether poverty alleviation had met expectations. To ensure that targeted poverty alleviation was successful, a number of fundamental changes had to be made to the existing system of rural governance, including the creation of new system for information collection and analysis that was more transparent for villages and farmers; the establishment of a mechanism for direct governance by the state in villages, with a large number of officials assigned to be directly involved in the daily governance of villages; and the institutionalisation of mechanisms for villagers’ participation in public affairs. These changes have improved the state’s governance and provision of social welfare in rural areas.

The strategy of targeted poverty alleviation depended upon high-quality data collection. Beginning in 2014, detailed investigations were conducted to identify each poor household, their specific causes of poverty, and the specific poverty alleviated measures to implement; the information gathered was used to generate an electronic database with files on each poor household, village, county, and region across the country. Poor households were individually registered in the database and provided with a poverty alleviation handbook, containing a summary of their basic conditions and causes of poverty, their poverty alleviation plan, and the contact information for the official responsible for their household. The central government had previously tried to develop a poverty alleviation registration system, including a trial program in eight provinces in 2005, however, due to limitations in human and material resources as well as the state’s investigative capacity, these efforts were not successful. The large-scale administrative mobilisation under targeted poverty alleviation allowed this task to finally be completed.

The electronic registration system improved China’s poverty alleviation efforts in two ways. First, the more accurate identification of poor households and villages allowed resources to be better directed to the appropriate recipients and measures to be specifically targeted to recipients’ needs. Second, the data collected provided the central government with a more up-to-date picture of conditions at the community-level and, consequently, a better understanding of rural areas, helping its decision-making, formulation of specific policies, and evaluation of poverty alleviation efforts.

Some critics have argued that the digitisation of poverty alleviation governance has detached the process from village life and community-level governance, while others have pointed out that digitisation and technological mechanisms cannot address issues of community-level governance.[5] In addition, due to the central government’s strong reliance on data in their decision-making, community-level poverty alleviation workers spent a significant amount of time engaged in administrative tasks related to data collection, such as filling in forms, which took away from their actual anti-poverty work and, in some areas, resulted in excessive formalism; this eventually prompted the central government to issue directives to reduce unnecessary data collection.

As targeted poverty alleviation progressed, however, the process of data collection, quality of the data obtained, and implementation of the data into governance all improved. First, by implementing procedural reviews to verify data after its initial collection, the data gradually became more accurate and objective. Second, the dynamic updating of data has also improved information quality. The goal of the registration system was to verify the general statistical estimates of the number of poor households, by conducting investigations on the ground. As targeted poverty alleviation advanced and the number of poor households decreased, the statistical estimates became less reliable, and the importance of precise household-to-household data increased. Since 2017, the poverty registration database has no longer been limited by the general statistical estimates and has been dynamically adjusted based on the findings of on-the-ground investigations. Third, the poverty alleviation registration system laid the foundation for information-based rural governance; going forward, as community-level governments gain further experience in data collection and are able to integrate data from different governmental departments and levels, information will play an increasingly important role in rural governance.

Information-based governance increased public transparency in rural areas, but was not able to improve the effectiveness of targeted poverty alleviation on its own; it was supported by a shift in the priorities of local governments and a greater distribution of resources to the community level. Following the rural reform of the 1980s that spurred China’s rapid economic development, local governments prioritised economic efficiency and focused their resources on rapidly developing sectors; meanwhile, the central government prioritised the development of urban areas and generally focused on the maximisation of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The targeted poverty alleviation campaign sought to reorient governmental priorities, at both central and local levels, placing the eradication of poverty in poor areas at the top of the agenda. From the top down, local government and CPC leaders were directed to regard poverty alleviation as their principal task, which led to a shift in the aims, resource allocation, and work of local governments and party committees. With poverty alleviation being made the first priority in poor areas, economic development had to serve this end, rather than narrowly pursue growth.

Along with this reprioritisation, the central government increased its distribution of resources to lower levels of government. These resources have not only included funds and supplies, but more importantly, human resources. Greater numbers of personnel have been required to address the weak administrative organisation of poor villages and advance targeted poverty alleviation, as traditional local institutions lacked the capacity both to distribute large amounts of resources to households and villages and to implement the new methods of governance associated with the campaign. Village organisations in poor areas were severely understaffed, often with three officials at most, and thus, were incapable of managing large amounts of resources or administering complex procedures. Related to this, these organisations had a very deficient knowledge base, and were overwhelmed by the influx of new poverty alleviation concepts, methods, and technological processes, such as the large-scale data collection about poor households and the selection of industries and markets to invest in. In addition, most village officials were enmeshed in their community’s social relationships, resulting in biases which undermined objective decision-making; to fairly distribute the large amounts of poverty alleviation resources that poor villages received from the central government, external support was necessary.

To address the shortage of human resources in rural areas, increase the administrative capacity in lower levels, and strengthen rural governance, the CPC dispatched resident work teams (驻村工作队, zhù cūn gōngzuò duì) and first party secretaries (the lead party official in an area) to live in and assist poor villages. Since 2013, more than three million officials from higher levels of government, state-owned enterprises, and other public institutions, have been dispatched as part of 255,000 resident work teams to live in villages for at least two years and work on targeted poverty alleviation.[6] Some researchers have questioned the impact of resident work teams, contending that they have lacked sufficient understanding of local situations and experience in agricultural production, and also faced resistance from local authorities; however, on the whole, the research indicates that resident work teams have brought more poverty alleviation resources into rural areas and gradually played a steering role in targeted poverty alleviation efforts.[7]

The dispatching of resident work teams to poor villages under targeted poverty alleviation was a continuation of the existing policy of pairing assistance (对口帮扶, duìkǒu bang fú), under which lower levels of governments support each other. Rather than being tasked with merely providing assistance, the resident work teams were given the responsibility of realising poverty alleviation in their villages, including managing poverty alleviation resources, visiting poor households, carrying out registration and data collection, and implementing anti-poverty measures. Resident work teams were generally required to stay in their assigned village for more than twenty days each month, and therefore, participated in the entire process of poverty alleviation. To address initial difficulties that resident work teams faced in carrying out poverty alleviation governance, in 2015, the CPC began to assign first party secretaries in most poor villages to concurrently serve as the heads of their village’s resident work team. This measure ironed out the institutional difficulty of integrating resident work teams into village decision-making. Improving the social governance of villages became a critical responsibility of first party secretaries, perhaps even more important than their duty to promote the economic development of villages.[8]

The large-scale movement of personnel to poverty-stricken villages exemplified the campaign-style governance of targeted poverty alleviation. While resident work teams differed in terms of their work, methods, and involvement in village affairs, from a broader, institutional perspective, through this mechanism the state was able to directly influence village-level governance. As such, targeted poverty alleviation did not merely consist of the central government channelling resources to rural areas, but rather was an extension of state power to the village level. From the identification of poor households to the setting of poverty alleviation standards, numerous measures formulated by the state were implemented at the village level.

Alongside greater state involvement in village administration, greater emphasis was also placed on villager participation. In theory, villagers’ self-governance was supposed to be the foundation of rural communities, from the establishment of village committees, elected and supervised by villagers, in the 1980s, to the central government’s promotion of community participation in poverty alleviation in the 1990s. In practice, however, many obstacles impeded the realisation of self-governance. For example, although village governance is based on a system of one person, one vote, political decisions were often intertwined with and influenced by the interests of families, factions, and other powers. Furthermore, due to the deterioration of rural communities as well as the lack of resources and supportive social environment, it was difficult to promote and safeguard democracy within villages. As a result, public participation in poverty alleviation was little more than a formality.

Targeted poverty alleviation strengthened the voices to villagers, especially those from poor households. First, enhanced public transparency and openness improved villagers’ participation, mainly through the identification of poverty-stricken households and the evaluation of poverty alleviation efforts. Designated poor households were given more poverty alleviation resources; although this has provoked disputes among villagers, especially when income differences were not evident, public transparency proved to be an effective remedy to these conflicts. Under targeted poverty alleviation, the confirmation of poor households required a public announcement and was subject to villagers’ approval. Villagers’ satisfaction was also an important factor in the evaluation of poverty alleviation efforts; here, villager participation was not abstract, but had a precise scope and form, encouraging high levels of participation. Second, and more importantly, the strict top-down inspections of poverty alleviation efforts created a channel for villagers’ opinions to reach upper levels of government, promoting accountability through the application of pressure from upper-level officials on lower-level officials (a mechanism of villager participation that differed from traditional models and conceptions). In the period of targeted poverty alleviation, villager participation and centralised authority were mutually reinforcing; the centralised authority strengthened the voice and participation of villagers through the application of pressure on local officials, while villager participation allowed the central government to evaluate local officials and ensure their aims were pursued at the community level.

Ultimately, targeted poverty alleviation established a new mechanism of rural governance in poverty-stricken rural areas, bridging the gap between official policy makers and the subjects of poverty alleviation policies. This mechanism led to the central government being better informed on conditions at the community level and, through top-down pressure, to greater participation for villagers, resulting in governmental policies being more thoroughly translated into grassroots actions and results.

The Potential for Lasting Changes in Rural Governance

The new mechanism of rural governance developed in the process of targeted poverty alleviation, played a crucial role in achieving the eradication of extreme poverty at the end of 2020 and effectively addressed long-standing rural political issues. However, whether these changes can be carried over from the targeted poverty alleviation campaign to conventional periods of governance and have a lasting impact on rural areas, depends on whether this mechanism can adapt to changing circumstances. There are three important factors that indicate that the structural changes in rural governance will endure.

First, the distribution of national administrative resources to lower levels of government is a major trend that will continue after the end of the targeted poverty alleviation. Prior to the campaign, the local talent pool and institutional structure in most villages were insufficient to support long-term development, and poor villages lacked the capacity to manage the influx of resources for poverty alleviation. In recent years, the state’s provision of administrative resources to rural areas has strengthened community-level institutions, supported the return of rural talents to their communities from urban areas, encouraged prominent villagers to participate in rural governance, and developed rural collective economies to help villages retain their developing talent and attract talent to return from cities. However, China is still in the process of rapid urbanisation; the rural population will continue to flow outwards, and the return of talents to rural areas has just begun. In this context, the distribution of administrative resources to lower levels is indispensable for maintaining rural social order and realising effective rural governance.

Second, the state will play an increasingly important role in rural areas, in terms of infrastructure construction and the provision of public goods. During the period of targeted poverty alleviation, the state has mainly focused its support on poverty-stricken rural areas, however, as part of the broader rural revitalisation strategy, more rural areas will benefit from the state’s resources. In this process, public transparency regarding recipient households and villages will remain important to avoid disputes and to prevent the distribution of resources from becoming influenced by local power struggles. As a result, it will be necessary for the state to build upon the poverty alleviation registration database and develop an general rural information system; for example, to identify the population living in relative poverty, information on both poor and non-poor households is needed because relative poverty can only be defined through a wide-ranging comparison across the rural population. In summary, as the state invests more resources in rural areas, it will increasingly need and rely upon information systems.

Third, rural development gravitates towards the areas where there are high levels of villagers’ participation in public affairs. In the context of a large outflow of young talent and an aging population, rural communities have been hollowed out; as such, strong institutional guarantees are required to secure villagers’ participation. The mechanism for villagers’ participation under targeted poverty alleviation was based on greater public transparency in rural affairs, the creation of an effective channel for feedback from the grassroots to top-level officials, and strict evaluation of and accountability for rural administrators. In this way, bottom-up participation was guaranteed by top-down support, although the process differed from traditional modes of villagers’ self-governance. Today, the objective is not to recreate traditional systems of village governance, but to develop mechanisms for participation that facilitate the effective distribution of state resources to rural areas. Therefore, participation must not be limited to the granting of superficial rights to villagers; more importantly, there must be concrete institutional guarantees that ensure villagers can and do participate.

The mechanisms of governance under targeted poverty alleviation have promoted important changes in rural governance, but they cannot simply be replicated going forward, in ordinary periods of governance. After successfully completing the tasks of targeted poverty, some formerly poverty-stricken counties have attempted to adapt the governance mechanisms of the campaign – in particular, the program of resident work teams – into their conventional system of governance. However, these efforts have encountered two main difficulties.

The first difficulty is the high cost of campaign-style governance measures. For instance, to complete the poverty alleviation registration system and ensure its high quality, more than two million staff were mobilised to work for eight months to just review the data. Meanwhile, the program of resident work teams required the redeployment of more than three million public servants to work full-time in villages, which not only incurred high costs in terms of subsidies, training, supervision, and the construction of accommodations, but also in terms of causing significant disruptions to the other governmental institutions, which had to undertake additional poverty alleviation responsibilities. In addition, the rotation of resident work teams between different villages made it difficult to ensure continuity in work and for officials to accumulate localised experience and knowledge. From both a financial and human resources perspective, the governance mechanisms of targeted poverty alleviation incurred a high cost and cannot easily be carried over in conventional periods of rural governance.

The second difficulty lies in the low level of institutionalisation of targeted poverty alleviation governance mechanisms and the challenges of balancing different governmental responsibilities. Campaign-style governance focuses on a single goal, adopting various and, at times, extraordinary methods to achieve this goal, some of which can be unsustainable and can even result in imbalances or unfairness. During the period of targeted poverty alleviation, the central task in poor areas was poverty alleviation, with a significant amount of human and material resources invested into meeting targets and shoring up weaknesses. This inevitably resulted in those tasks that fell outside of this objective, being overlooked. For example, following poverty alleviation registration, resources were often concentrated on registered poor households and, at times, the needs of other farmers were neglected. In some cases, poor households were relocated to situations where they would have a stable income and were not only provided with housing, but also with real estate to set up small businesses, giving them far more assets than the average farmer. The temporary and short-term measures employed in campaign-style governance are difficult to replicate in ordinary periods due to their lack of institutionalisation.

The governance mechanisms and extraordinary measures of targeted poverty alleviation need to be appropriately adapted to conventional governance, to continue promoting living standards and balanced development as part of rural revitalisation. In this process of adaptation, it is necessary to institutionalise the rural information system, the distribution of administrative resources to rural areas, and the participation of villagers, in a manner that reduces operational costs, while maintaining their advantageous features.

First, it is necessary to regularise and institutionalise data collection and analysis in rural areas. In the 1950s, the central government established an agricultural economic management system that collected and aggregated rural data for a number of decades, however, this data lacked objectivity and was eventually replaced by statistical sampling surveys. However, while statistical sampling can assist macro-governmental decision-making, it is not suited to micro-governance. Within the new framework of poverty alleviation registration, information systems from various governmental departments, such as civil affairs, public security, and finance, can and should be integrated to establish a unified rural information network, thereby systematising information-based rural governance.

Second, it is necessary to institutionalise the distribution of administrative resources to lower levels. The state must continue to provide financial and human resources to support rural governance, including incorporating rural service into the responsibilities of national civil servants. Currently, the central government distributes administrative resources to lower levels in various ways, the most common of which are the baocun (包村, bāo cūn) system of designating township officials as responsible for assisting the economic and social development of specific villages, as well as the dispatching of first party secretaries and resident work teams to poor villages under targeted poverty alleviation. The combination of these two measures, the baocun and resident work teams, could establish a sustainable village-level administrative system and promote long-term changes in the structure of rural governance. The village-level administrative system should not merely be considered to consist of the existing village officials and village organisations, but more broadly envisioned as the extension of the national administrative system to rural villages. Therefore, rotations in village governance should be systematically incorporated into the responsibilities of higher-level officials and civil servants, but in a manner that is sustainable and does not overburden institutions.

Third, it is necessary to institutionalise villager participation. Village committees should be strengthened as institutions for self-governance and as vehicles for villagers to participate in public affairs and democratic decision-making. On the one hand, the bureaucratisation of village committees must be reversed so that they can be more closely connected with the people and not simply function as extensions of the central government; on the other hand, the supervisory role of village committees and their coordination with village-level administrative authorities must be strengthened, so that they can become people’s organisations.

As a significant social mobilisation, campaign, and experiment, targeted poverty alleviation has innovated China’s rural governance model. The lasting impact of targeted poverty alleviation will depend not only on the changes that have already taken place but also on how these changes can be adapted and institutionalised into rural governance going forward.


Ji Shao and Li Xiaoliang. ‘A Study on the Changes in Rural People’s Income in China during the past 70 Years: An Institutional Reform and Institutional Innovation Perspective’ [建国70年来我国农村居民收入变化研究——体制改革、制度创新视角]. Inquiry into Economic Issues [经济问题探索], no. 11 (2019): 180–190.

The State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China. Poverty Alleviation: China’s Experience and Contribution. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 2021.

Wang Yulei. ‘Going Digital to the Countryside: Technology-Based Governance in Rural Targeted Poverty Alleviation’ [数字下乡:农村精准扶贫中的技术治理]. Sociological Studies [社会学研究], no. 6 (2016): 119–142.

Wei Chenglin and Zhao Xiaofeng. ‘Regular Governance, Campaign-styled Governance, and the Targeted Poverty Alleviation Program’ [常规治理、运动式治理与中国扶贫实践]. Journal of China Agricultural University (Social Sciences Edition) [中国农业大学学报(社会科学版)] 35, no. 5 (2018): 58–69.

Xie Yumei, Yang Yang and Liu Zhen. ‘Targeted Integration: Selection, Operation, and Practice of the First Secretaries for Resident Work Teams in Poor Villages’ [精准嵌入:“第一书记”驻村帮扶选派、运行与实践]. Journal of Jiangnan University (Humanities and Social Sciences) [江南大学学报(人文社会科学版)], no. 2 (2019): 29–36.

Xu Hanze and Li Xiaoyun. ‘On the Practical Plight of the Residency Support System and Its Consequences in the Context of Targeted Poverty Alleviation’ [精准扶贫背景下驻村机制的实践困境及其后果]. Journal of Jiangxi University of Finance and Economics [江西财经大学学报], no. 3 (2017): 82–89.

Author’s Notes

1. Wei Chenglin and Zhao Xiaofeng, ‘Regular Governance, Campaign-styled Governance, and the Targeted Poverty Alleviation Program’ [常规治理、运动式治理与中国扶贫实践], Journal of China Agricultural University (Social Sciences Edition) [中国农业大学学报(社会科学版)] 35, no. 5 (2018).

2. China had long levied an agricultural tax, dating back to the Zhou dynasty (周朝, 1046–256 BCE), roughly 2,600 years ago. For many centuries, this was the country’s most important source of fiscal revenue. As China developed its industry and commerce, it relied less on the agricultural tax for revenue and, in 2006, it was eliminated completely and created a vacuum in government presence in the countryside.

3. Ji Shao and Li Xiaoliang, ‘A Study on the Changes in Rural People’s Income in China during the past 70 Years: An Institutional Reform and Institutional Innovation Perspective’ [建国70年来我国农村居民收入变化研究——体制改革、制度创新视角], Inquiry into Economic Issues [经济问题探索], no. 11 (2019).

4. In 2010, China nearly doubled its national poverty line from 1,196 yuan per year (in 2008 prices) to 2,300 yuan per year (in 2010 prices). In 2013, with the initiation of targeted poverty alleviation, China raised its poverty line to 4,000 yuan per year (in 2013 prices).

5. Wang Yulei, ‘Going Digital to the Countryside: Technology-Based Governance in Rural Targeted Poverty Alleviation’ [数字下乡:农村精准扶贫中的技术治理], Sociological Studies [社会学研究], no. 6 (2016).

6. The State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, Poverty Alleviation: China’s Experience and Contribution (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 2021), 35.

7. For a more critical assessment on resident work teams, see Xu Hanze and Li Xiaoyun, ‘On the Practical Plight of the Residency Support System and Its Consequences in the Context of Targeted Poverty Alleviation’ [精准扶贫背景下驻村机制的实践困境及其后果], Journal of Jiangxi University of Finance and Economics [江西财经大学学报], no. 3 (2017). On the integration and leadership of resident work teams in rural areas, see Xie Yumei, Yang Yang and Liu Zhen, ‘Targeted Integration: Selection, Operation, and Practice of the First Secretaries for Resident Work Teams in Poor Villages’ [精准嵌入:“第一书记”驻村帮扶选派、运行与实践], Journal of Jiangnan University (Humanities and Social Sciences) [江南大学学报(人文社会科学版)], no. 2 (2019).

8. First party secretaries played an important role in village governance under targeted poverty alleviation, although their specific roles varied regionally. In Shandong province, for instance, first party secretaries had three main responsibilities: poverty alleviation, public outreach, and rural party-building. Meanwhile, in Guizhou province, the responsibilities of first party secretaries were divided into six categories: helping community-level organisations build infrastructure, training local talent, cultivating local industries, strengthening collective economies, improving management mechanisms, and resolving disputes.