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A fantastic formula behind China's success in poverty alleviation
  ·  2021-07-16  ·   Source: NO.29 JULY 22, 2021

Malcolm Clarke, a British director and two-time Academy Award winner, shared his views on how China's pursuit of xiaokang, or moderate prosperity, has changed people's lives with Beijing Review reporter Li Nan. Xiaokang is a goal the government first proposed in the late 1970s and has recently been accomplished. 

Clarke's new documentary A Long Cherished Dream, which features ordinary Chinese people, premiered in Beijing on July 13 (See P.46 for more information). This is an edited excerpt of his views: 

The best government initiatives are the ones that have real lasting impact on people's lives, changing people's lives for the better. And xiaokang is definitely doing that.

When I came to China in the 1980s, I was shocked by how poor great areas of the country were. It was actually quite difficult to find places outside major cities where people were living a comfortable life. Now it's more difficult than ever to find extreme poverty in China.

This is a country that feeds 1.4 billion people every day. Some people don't have a lot to eat, but they're not going to die of starvation. China now has great education even in the most distant parts of the country. It's a remarkable achievement and China is to be commended. It's getting better every year at a rate that is staggering. I have a huge admiration for the achievement.

What we were trying to do was to show a little bit of what xiaokang had achieved. We tried very hard to put a human face on what is, in essence, a government initiative. We tried by just taking snapshots of four different people's lives at different stages of development to show how this initiative had changed people's lives for the better.

It was very difficult to make the selection of who our characters would be because we wanted them to be very different to each other. And we wanted to show a range of what xiaokang meant, so that people in the West could really understand what it is.

The reason we chose them is because they were willing to be emotionally honest. We were not particularly gentle with them. Some of the questions we asked were quite searching and quite emotionally difficult for them to answer. But they were all very kind to us and opened their lives. They talk about their lives, loves, hopes, dreams, and importantly, their failures and shortcomings. It's very unusual in China because what I see in the Chinese media are only success stories. But we all make mistakes. We all fail.

The thing that impressed me most throughout the series was the optimism of the people and the belief that China was doing so well. The people who I filmed were object lessons in how that process is going to not only improve their lives materially but also allow them in time to achieve their dreams, no matter what their dreams are. China is now making those opportunities available and I think that's impressive.

Also, the one thing that impressed me in the early 1980s and impresses me now is how resilient the Chinese people are despite the circumstances. In episode two, we had a young female truck driver who had a very hard life because she was a poor woman. But I think she represents the best of Chinese women. She's relentless, not going to be beaten. She's going to improve her life for herself, for her child and for her parents, regardless of circumstances.

The premiere of A Long Cherished Dream in Beijing on July 13 (WEI YAO)

I think our very short films, roughly 30 minutes each, can only scratch the surface of what xiaokang means and what it represents. If we take the time to see the four films as a package, it's two hours of tremendously impressive people doing their best to ride the wave of China's success and they certainly all deserve it.

I think there's a fantastic formula behind China's success in poverty alleviation: organization, state capacity at a level that we in the West can't imagine, and good intentions on the part of China's leaders.

There has been a consistent intention to improve the lives of the Chinese people. And it has succeeded and it continues to succeed. China's politicians have outperformed politicians in the rest of the world in improving the lives of the people, which is why they sit in those chairs and do those jobs. They've done a very good job.

Another 100 million people in China now don't have to worry about whether the food is going to be on the table or whether their kids will ever receive an education. They will become productive members of Chinese society. An extra 100 million people fulfilling their own potential and dreams is a huge new contribution to the commonwealth in this country. And these people will add to China's machine, which is progressing faster than anywhere else in the world.

If I have a very gentle admonishment of the xiaokang system, it is all about results. It's about getting people out of poverty into a better circumstance. But there is a psychological dimension, which I feel is being under-examined. When you push away from the shore, and you are floating in a new sea of experiences, it's very traumatic. It's scary. I would like to see more attention to those intangible assets that people have in their heads and in their hearts. Their folklore, their traditions, their language, all of those things needed to be honored and preserved. I think more attention needs to be placed on the psychological dimension so that people [who move to new homes] don't feel unmoored from the past.

When wealthy American economists start throwing stones at China [by criticizing its poverty line], it's frankly inappropriate, unwarranted and unproductive. I don't think they really understand the scope and scale of China's poverty alleviation—1.4 billion people are a huge constituency to take care of. I think China has done a remarkable job. Its poverty line may reach $5.5 a day or even $15 a day by the end of the century. The fact that it's got as far as it has so quickly is not something to criticize. I think it's something to celebrate.

I feel that there's a certain amount of cynical, self-dealing hypocrisy. America hasn't shaken off poverty. Certainly, Britain hasn't shaken off poverty. I think America should look to its own devices before it starts throwing stones at other countries.

(Print Edition Title: A Fantastic Formula) 

Copyedited by Ryan Perkins 

Comments to linan@bjreview.com 

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