China's unhappy birthday: Spectacular poverty shift masks abuses – Newsroom

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COMMENT: Instead of celebrating the birthday of China’s regime, New Zealand is forced to express grave concerns about its human rights abuses.

2021 is a special year for China. It is the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China, plus the 50th anniversary of the restoration of the lawful seat of the country in the United Nations.

Last month at the opening meeting of the fourth session of the 13th National People’s Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Premier Li Keqiang delivered a government work report that lays out general guidelines for government policies for this year.

The first part of the report presents an overall picture for 2020. All major countries except China recorded negative growth in 2020, while China followed a V-shape recovery path with output surpassing pre-Covid levels last year.

“China made the historic achievement of establishing a moderately prosperous society in all respects and achieved decisive success in eradicating extreme poverty.”
– Xi Jinping, President

China’s economy grew by 2.3 percent in 2020. It set in place measures to keep overall employment stable. Local governments and businesses worked in tandem and millions of urban jobs were added. Their year-end survey saw urban unemployment drop to 5.2 percent, while China’s GDP topped 100 trillion yuan for the first time.

The second part of the report reviews the achievements of the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016–2020) and provides an overview of the major targets for the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021–2025).

In his New Year’s address, President Xi Jinping stated that the 13th Five-Year Plan has been accomplished in full, and highlighted that in 2020, “China made the historic achievement of establishing a moderately prosperous society in all respects and achieved decisive success in eradicating extreme poverty.”


Can adoption of more democratic institutions help China achieve the balanced and sustainable growth is seeks? Click here to comment.


The World Bank publishes several measures of global poverty, which measure poverty by different levels of income. Poverty headcount ratios, for example, provide information on the percentage of the population making less than a particular amount. The poverty headcount ratio is the percentage of the population living on less than US$1.90 a day, at 2011 international prices. This is a measure of absolute poverty, a condition where household income is below a necessary level to maintain basic living standards, such as food and shelter.

In 2002 around 32 percent of the Chinese population had income at or below $1.90 a day, where the world average was around 26 per cent. There has been a steady improvement in this statistic in China: 18.5 percent in 2005, 11.2 percent in 2010, 6.5 percent in 2012, and just 0.5 percent in 2016. This is spectacular given the fact that the world average was around 10 percent in 2016.

The 14th Five-Year Plan for Economic and Social Development (2021-2025) emphasises the importance of scientific progress and technological innovation to pursue economic growth. Keeping major economic indicators within an appropriate range and setting realistic targets are highlighted. The 14th Five-Year Plan is pro-environment. Clear targets are given: for instance, energy consumption per unit of GDP and carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP are to be reduced by 13.5 per cent and 18 per cent respectively.

The plan is also to enhance the human capital of the country via increasing the quantity of education (that is, expanding the average number of years of schooling) and quality of education (that is, fostering a contingent of top-performing teachers with strong professional expertise).

The third section of the report outlines the projected targets for this year. The report lists 11 main targets, which include GDP growth of over 6 percent, more than 11 million new urban jobs, a surveyed urban unemployment rate of around 5.5 percent, and grain output of more than 650 million metric tonnes.

In line with these targets, China’s economy continued to advance in the first two months of 2021. According to a press release last month from the National Bureau of Statistics of China, major indicators grew steadily in January and February. According to the World Bank, China is expected to expand by 8.1 percent in 2021.

Sustainability is emphasised several times. China is aiming to lower its dependence on foreign countries, especially with agricultural and dairy products. The Chinese government and policy makers know sustainability in agriculture is one of the major issues for the world’s most populous country.

China has been working on several sustainable business practices to promote mechanisation and digitalisation of agriculture. In recent years millions of Chinese farmers have cut fertiliser use and boosted harvests after adopting modern soil-management practices.

What are the implications of this report for New Zealand?

The Government Work Report also emphasises that China will “continue to deepen international and regional cooperation”.

The New Zealand-China free trade agreement upgrade, in January this year, is a nice example of China’s international cooperation intentions. China has become New Zealand’s top commodity export destination, with exports from NZ to China increasing from around US$90m in 1979 to more than US$11b in 2019.

The upgrade will make exporting to China easier. By January 2024, all New Zealand dairy exports to China will be tariff-free. The Side Letter on Wood and Paper Products brings a tariff elimination scheme phased over 10 years on an additional 12 lines of wood and paper products.

The upgrade also reduces barriers to trade, by simplifying and harmonising customs procedures; ensuring predictability, consistency and transparency in the application of customs law; ensuring the efficient and expeditious clearance of goods and means of transport; and promoting cooperation between the customs administrations.

Democracy, rights, freedoms, and human rights concerns

While New Zealand is one of the most democratic countries in the world, China is among the least democratic. The Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute classifies political regimes as either a closed autocracy, electoral autocracy, electoral democracy, or liberal democracy. According to their Democracy Report 2021, New Zealand is classified as a liberal democracy, whereas China is classified as a closed autocracy.

There are several potential areas of bilateral frictions between New Zealand and China. In March 2021, Nanaia Mahuta, New Zealand’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Senator Marise Payne, Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Women, released two joint statements.

The first expresses the concerns regarding Hong Kong’s autonomy, democratic institutions, and freedom of speech. (The Report on the Work of the Government states China’s position on this issue clearly, by stating “We will stay true to the letter and spirit of the principle of One Country, Two Systems, under which the people of Hong Kong administer Hong Kong and the people of Macao administer Macao, both with a high degree of autonomy.”)

The second statement raises grave concerns about China’s treatment of ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. The message is clear: China should be transparent and accountable. Both Australia and New Zealand welcomed the measures announced by the other three members of the Five Eyes alliance, Canada, the UK and the US, as well as the European Union.

China is targeting balanced and sustainable growth. Adoption of more democratic institutions and more transparent policies will help China achieve its targets this year.