China’s regional inequality has historically been an issue. It is common for developed countries to have regional wealth and income disparity between rural and urban areas. Enormous wealth inequality exists between rural and urban regions of China with 90 percent of all poverty being rural poverty.
The Current State of Regional Inequality in China
Along with China’s regional poverty, an educational disparity has widened within China. The government has supported and subsidized education in urban centers but neglected to invest in opportunities for rural education. Since the 1950s, rural attendance at the Universities of Tsinghua and Peking has declined from over 50 percent to less than 20 percent in 2005 despite the rural population making up the majority of China’s population at that time. The lack of educational opportunities in rural communities in China has fed into the downward spiral of stagnation for such regions, as an educated populace is a crucial asset for creating economic growth.
Previous Efforts to Combat Regional Inequality in China
Recently, the Chinese government has recognized the need to address the growing problem of China’s regional inequality and has enacted a series of relatively new but ambitious policies to tackle the crisis.
China proposed the first of these in 1999. The Great Western Development Strategy is a $1 trillion (Chinese Yuan) development plan that aims at investing in development and growth in the inland Western Regions of the country. The plan slowly began in the early 2000s with spending on infrastructure projects in the west.
One of the most major projects was the construction of the West-East gas pipeline which began in 2002 and ended in 2005. This was a very ambitious project that created numerous jobs and revenue for the west while also benefitting the east coast. Other energy initiatives focused largely on the creation of hydropower plants throughout the region. Other infrastructure projects have focused on transportation. The Qinghai-Tibet Railway and the Southern Xinjiang Railway finished in the mid-2000s as a part of the strategy. These new railways employed many people and improved transportation substantially in their respective regions.
The Great Western Development Strategy also hopes to entice foreign investments in the region. The primary strategies for this objective are environmental conservation and improvement in educational opportunities. The plan has waived tuition fees for compulsory education in west China in hopes of improving the overall education of its citizens. Huge ecological conservation policies, such as Returning Grazing Land to Grassland seek to convert vast swaths of farmland into natural grasslands, as well as protect and expand forestry.
Recent Efforts to Combat Regional Inequality in China
The Northeast Revitalization Plan aims to rebuild traditional industries in the northeast, but with added economic and environmental regulations. The plan has also abolished taxes on agricultural workers and farmers, hoping this policy will be favorable towards the regions declining agricultural industry.
The new proposal, the Rise of Central China Plan, focusses on improving China’s agricultural heartland. Many often refer to Central China as “China’s Breadbasket.” The region has experienced only a fraction of the growth that coastal regions have undergone. As of 2002, the region’s real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was only 75 percent the national average. The Rise of Central China Plan will promote investment in advancements in agricultural techniques and technology with the hopes of increasing farming efficiency and creating larger yields in the region.
This is especially important for China as the issue of food security has risen for the highly populated nation. The Rise of Central China Plan also focuses on the development of transportation infrastructure in central China. A huge reason for central China’s economic stagnation has been lack of sufficient transportation, which has stifled its growth despite the region’s abundance of natural resources such as coal and its massive population.
Regional inequality in China has deep roots in past policies. The rural-urban divide has prompted a wave of bold new reforms aimed at combatting rural poverty and though the effort has just begun, these programs are showing promising results.
– Karl Haider