STRIVING TO OBEY an order from President Xi Jinping—namely, that extreme poverty must be eliminated in China by the end of 2020—officials have given many things to Jizi Arimo, a 47-year-old widow and mother of four. Chaguan met Ms Jizi last week in a newly built apartment block in Yuexi, a once-remote rural county in the south-western province of Sichuan.

One way to tell Ms Jizi’s story is with economic statistics. In her old home, high in the mountains, she was officially deemed impoverished. The poverty line varies a bit by region, but is currently around 4,000 yuan ($590) a year. As this year began, roughly 5m Chinese still needed to cross that line for Mr Xi’s promise to be kept. Officials in Sichuan paid the lion’s share of the costs of Ms Jizi’s relocation, and now employ her as a cleaner at her housing complex, paying her 550 yuan a month.

Yet poverty alleviation is about more than numbers. Like much else in Mr Xi’s China, it is also a strikingly political endeavour. Ms Jizi’s home was one stop on a recent government tour of poverty-related work, organised for foreign and domestic journalists. This was not a trip for verifying government claims independently, or for probing reports that some rural folk have been kept off poverty registers by bureaucrats anxious to hit targets. Officials stood over Ms Jizi as she answered questions. Throughout the visit, minders followed journalists who tried to break from the pack.

A frail figure in a checked overcoat and hat, Ms Jizi spoke perched on a sofa, beneath a colour poster of Mr Xi with the caption: “Be grateful to the party. Listen to the party. Follow the party”. A member of the Yi minority, she is hesitant in Mandarin Chinese. To approving nods from officials, she declared: “If it weren’t for General Secretary Xi, I wouldn’t have such a lovely home.” Every flat visited by the press was decorated with the same photograph of Mr Xi. A second poster on display in each apartment featured photographs of residents’ old and new homes, and slogans like “Relocation warms our hearts and we are forever grateful to the party” and “Welcoming a new life with a smiling face”. The whole housing estate is hung with party slogans and banners. Home to 6,660 relocated villagers, its name is “Gratitude Community”.

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Ms Jizi’s new home is not exceptional. Other model communities visited on the tour were also plastered with posters praising the party and Mr Xi. The party secretary of Sichuan province, Peng Qinghua, told reporters that encouraging thankfulness was part of poverty-alleviation work. “Conservative and outdated thinking is the root cause of poverty,” he explained. In his telling, the party’s focus on moral education is a unique advantage of socialism with Chinese characteristics. In particular, he charged that the Yi, of whom about 2.5m live in Sichuan, needed to be led away from such “undesirable habits” as paying lavish dowries for brides, or holding extravagant funerals despite “not caring for their elderly parents while they are still alive”. Mr Peng praised party members who lead by example. He paid tribute to officials killed in mountain car-crashes, and told of a party secretary who, rather than quit a rural posting and return to her home city to look after a newly widowed mother, brought her mother to live in the country.

That vision of party members as self-sacrificing, secular missionaries, leading the masses towards more productive lives, comes from the top. State media never tire of showing Mr Xi touring rural areas to inspect the latest cash-generating crops and industries, like an austere but benevolent monarch. Almost four decades ago the countryside was freed from misery by the abolition of collective farms, as Deng Xiaoping, the then paramount leader, allowed peasants to choose which crops to grow and to start their own businesses. In the Xi era officials seem confident, once more, that the government knows best. Technocrats interviewed in Liangshan prefecture, where Ms Jizi lives, deny that they are returning to central planning. They describe a hybrid model harnessing both state resources and market discipline. In many places, villagers are encouraged to rent their small plots of land to agricultural co-operatives, creating larger, more efficient farms which may then employ some of them as herdsmen or to pick crops. Government bodies and state-owned enterprises in the prosperous east are urged to buy Liangshan-grown apples, walnuts or buckwheat tea, as a patriotic duty.

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In part, poverty alleviation is an urbanisation scheme. In the past two years alone, nearly 10m Chinese have been physically relocated from rural homes deemed “inhospitable”. Officials say that all choose to move, with only a few older folk struggling to adjust. Some families move to cement-walled houses a short walk from their former homes of wood and mud. Others leave for apartments many miles away. Lots of youngsters head farther afield to work as migrants. The Yi are strong and unafraid of heights, enthuses an official. That makes them sought-after workers when electricity lines need stringing between pylons.

Coming down from the mountains

Young children learn Mandarin as well as the Yi language in the kindergartens now found in each village, readying them for the workforce. In Liangshan the government is building new boarding schools, some with subsidised books and accommodation. Lin Shucheng, Liangshan’s party chief, is proud of outdoor “night schools” that teach farmers modern agricultural techniques, and village women embroidery and other handicrafts. If the poor are not educated and given incentives to work, he says, they will “sit in the sunshine in a corner, waiting for a government cheque”.

The past should not be romanticised. Not long ago, farmers in Liangshan lived harsh, isolated lives. For all that, poverty alleviation is not an act of disinterested charity. China’s poorest are being integrated into the national economy and trained to thank the party for it. Putting money in people’s pockets is one measure of success. The greater prize is putting ideas in people’s heads.

Clarification (September 20th 2020): A previous version of this article said that the poverty line was around 2,300 yuan. This figure was set in 2011 and has been used as the basis for subsequent adjustments to reflect current prices. In real terms the line is about 4,000 yuan today.

This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline “The politics of poverty”

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