Poverty and Anti-Poverty in China Mountain Region

Shen Maoying 1


Poverty is observable all over the world. As a developing country china has a large number of people living in poverty. Most of them are living in mountain areas. This article will discuss the poverty in mountain areas, the distribution, the character and the interpretation of the poverty. Finally, this article also points out the recommendations for antipoverty.

Poverty is observable all over the world. As a developing country China has a huge population under the poverty-line, which was 80 million and 592 poverty-stricken counties in 1993. An anti-poverty program (called `Eight-Seven Program' which means that China would eliminate poverty of about 80 million people in seven years by the end of 20 th century) launched in 1993 has achieved a great success in poverty alleviation. Up to 2000 population under the poverty-line has declined to 32 million, of which 17 million are from poverty-stricken counties and 15 million from non-poverty-stricken counties. West China is a major poverty area where the incidence of poverty is higher than other part of china, the poor population increased 0.59 million in 2000, and the percent of population in western to the total population under the poverty-line is about 62%. West China is therefore a key area for China to fight poverty.

1. The Spatial Distribution of China Poverty

1.1 Poverty areas almost in China mountain regions

Poverty incidence closely associates to mountain in China. Retrospect to the middle period of 1980's, all of the 18 patch-poverty areas that were determined by the Chinese central government are in mountain areas. The range of eight-seven antipoverty national strategy also covers 592 counties. Among of the poverty-stricken counties, 18% is in upland, 66% in mountain and 14% in plain. Therefore, the poverty counties are scattered in the mountain and upland areas with fragile environment and inconvenience transportation system. After ten years antipoverty strategy, there still exist more than 32 million people living under the poverty line in 2000. About 62% of the total poor people are in western region, 28% in central region and 10% in eastern region.

This distribution of the poorest is closely related the distribution of mountain. About 64.8% of the total mountain and 56.2% of the hilly land are in western region. 72.8% of the western region is covered by the mountain and hilly land. The mountainous provinces are in southwest China, which are Sichuan, Yunnn, Guizhou and Chongqing Municipality. The mountain areas in Sichuan, Yunan and Guizhou are 72%, 80.3% and 80.8% respectively. Added the hilly land in each province, the mountain areas are beyond to 95% of the total areas in Yunan and Guizhou, and 90% in Sichuan (including Chongqing Municipality). Meanwhile, southwest part is the poorest region with high poverty incidence and a lot of poor counties. According to the eight-seven anti-poverty strategy, the national poverty counties are 164 in this region, 19,630,000 people living in the poverty counties and 2,760,000 people non-poverty counties, which account to 27.7%, 33.5% and 34.22% of the total national population respectively. Generally, Chinese rural poverty is in western region and mountain area. The main stream of antipoverty is in western and mountain.

1.2 Poverty Areas Overlap with Sensitive Eco-zone

China sensitive eco-zones are quite different in north and south. Northern sensitive eco-zone starts from Baicheng in western Jilin province, pass through south xilinguolei county, wulanchabu county, Yikezhao county of Inner Mongolia, northwest Shanxi Province, Northwest Shaanxi Province and ends in southeast Ningxia. The southern sensitive eco-zone consists of two parts: one is the semi-tropical area with the basic land compound of granite and red rocky in coastal areas of southeastern and the upland in south part of Yangtze River; the other is marginal zone of the southwest plateau and Hengdan Mountain. The south sensitive eco-zones are almost in the transition terrain between the first terrain to the second and the karst topography area in southwest China.

The counties in the eco-zone are usually poor. Among 76% counties in these sensitive eco-zone are below the poverty line, which takes to 73% of the total counties in the provinces that are in the sensitive eco-zone. From the land dropped in the sensitive eco-zone, the poverty counties take to 43% of the land that account for 47% of the total land of the provinces in the sensitive eco-zone. Related to arable land, 68% in the poverty counties are in the range of the sensitive eco-zone that represent for 74% of the total arable land of these provinces in the sensitive eco-zone. From the view of population, about 74% of the total population are in the poor condition that represent for 81% of the total poor population in these provinces in range of the sensitive eco-zone.

2. The General Poverty Characters

2.1 Absolute Poverty

Mountain poor in China mostly is in the absolute stage. The consumption and income in different topography are quite different. The income of mountain is much lower than the plain's and the hilly-land's. Here is an example. According to fixed household survey done by the national statistic bureau in 2000, there is quite different in the rural economic development indicators among mountain, plain and hilly-land (see figure 1): the gross income and year net income in mountain are much lower than upland and plain, and the gross payout almost the same. The reason for income gap is that labor only employed in the primary especially agriculture sector: 92% of the labor force works in their living areas in the fixed inspective households, and about 88.2% labor engage in farming activities and 85.6% specific in crop planting.

The living condition for mountain poor is too bad for making a living. According to the statistic, the poorest people with very bad living condition are about 4 million, which scatter in 6-provinces that include Guangxi, Guizhou, Yunnan, Tibet, Qinghai and Xinjiang.

The endemic often takes place in mountain region. Local people have to suffer the disease and poverty. Batang County is a national poverty county in ethnical areas where the endemic is the big condyle. In 1997, people with big condyle was 8637 persons, represent to 34% of the total rural population.

2.2 Deepening poor and difficulty to alleviate

Mountains are often regarded as barriers to communication and development. People living in the mountain region are deeply poor, and the general antipoverty strategy cannot play very well. In 2000, the poor population in the national poverty counties are more than 17 million, and among of them about 1.78 million in eastern region, 4.87 million in central part, and 10.72 million in western region, which only reduced 0.4 million, 2.96 million and 5.43 million separately on the baseline of 1997. The rates of the poor people among "east--central-west" from 1:3.6:7.4 in 1997 turn to 1:2.7:6 in 2000. The gaps among east, central and west were reduced a lot. The number of the poor people in east region reduces slowly because they mostly scatter to the remote mountain areas where the general antipoverty strategy cannot play well in. People who get rid off poor also turn to poor very easy if they meet any disaster. Up to now, most of the poorest whether in east, central or west are in the remote mountain area, which is the big challenge for antipoverty strategy in the future.

2.3 Poor both in culture and economy

Poor is poor not just in poor economic situation also in poor culture and social services. According to the statistics conducted in 637 counties, about 18.3% of the total communities cannot connect with outside by the traffic road, 16.5% of total communities cannot use electricity, 56.5% communities don't have tap water and 57% communities have no telephone equipment to use. Another case is in Liangshan Prefecture, Sichuan Province. There are more than 1.15 million labors in the national poverty counties, and about 40% of them are illiteracies and semi-illiteracies. Similar to this, statistics from national ethnical committee also shows that the illiteracy or semi-illiteracy in the labor force is about 30% of the total labor force.The poor people keep the stereotype of life style and ideology, which further confine the mountain economic development (see table 1).

Table 1: education between poor household and non-poor households


Inspective poor household

Other household

1. Labor education year (year/capita)



2. Percentage of high education below elementary (%)



#. Illiteracy rate of labor (%)



3.Percentage of the labor education above high middle school (%)



4. Enrolling rate between 7-15 (%)



Resources: from the Chinese Poverty Report (2001), published by Chinese statistic press.

2.4 High poverty incidence in ethnical group

Poverty incidence is very closely to the ethnical people. According to the data announced by the Chinese government, about 40 million poor people from the ethnical group or ethnical autonomous region in 1992, and took half of the total poor population. In the eight-seven antipoverty strategy, the county having ethnical autonomous right or equivalent rights is about 259, represent for 44% of the total poverty counties (total number is 592).

At the end of 2000, the poor people is about 17 million in ethnical group living areas, which account for half of the total poor population. The people still living in the poverty line in eight provinces or regions that have ethnical people are about 10 million, which take 8% of the total rural population in these provinces. The average incidence of poverty in ethnical provinces is about 10%, and in Tibet, Xinjiang, Qinghai and Ningxia is above 10%. There still have 1252 ethnical towns or townships in the non-ethnical counties, and 600 ethnical towns or townships are very poor.

3 Causes for Poverty

3.1 View of Economic Development

3.1.1 Primary industry mostly dominates in GDP of mountain areas.

Economic structure is simple. Level of industrial structure in mountains is lower than in plain and hilly areas. Although mountain areas take up 43% of the total land, hilly areas 26% and plain areas 31%, the percentage of GDP in China is 46% in plain areas, 30% in hilly areas and 24% in mountain areas. The percentage of agriculture in GDP in different landforms between 1999 t0 2000 is shown in table2. In poverty-stricken areas, industrial structure in 2000 is that primary industry takes up 35.9%, secondary industry 33.7% and tertiary industry 30.4%. In China as a whole, primary industry is about 16%, secondary industry about 33% and tertiary industry about 51%.

Table2 The percentage of primary industry in GDP (%)



Mountain areas

Hilly areas

Plain areas

Percentage of primary industry









Increase of percentage





Source: China Statistic Bureau, 2001, China Rural Statistic Yearbook , China Statistic Press

3.1.2 Economic development pattern bias the mountain region

The poverty-stricken areas in mountains are always in marginal areas of economic development, which is characterized with a dual geographical structure. The core area or growth points have radiating effects on underdeveloped areas through trickling down. At the same time productive elements such as labor force and capital move to those areas where the elements have high return through market-mechanism. The poverty-stricken mountain areas are always in disadvantaged position in attracting productive elements like labor-force and capitals. On the contrary capitals in poverty-stricken mountain areas often flow into more developed areas, which may counteract efforts in poverty alleviation in a certain way. Besides poverty-stricken mountain areas are mostly in frontier areas, which are far from political and economic center of a region or a country, and become a marginalized zone. Marginalized zone is not only in geographical meaning, also in the economic development, which may have difficulties in receive effects emitted by core centers or growth poles.

3.1.3 Incomplete industrial chain

Poverty-stricken mountain areas are rich in resources but irrational in exploitation of them. Resources are used to make raw materials or semi-manufactured products, of which the price is low in market. Therefore capital accumulation is slow because of the low price and low added value of products.

3.1.4 Incomplete marketing system

Population in mountain areas usually scatters in a large area where transportation is inconvenient and settlements are too small to form specialized markets.

3.1.5 Underemployment and unemployment is serious.

Agriculture is a major sector for employment of labors. Of all employed labors in 2000, 50% in primary industry, 23% in secondary industry and 27% in tertiary industry in China as whole. But in some poverty-stricken areas, 88% of all labors employed are in rural areas where 76% of employed labors are in agricultural sectors.

3.2 View of Social Development

3.2.1 National industrial policies may have negative impact on development in mountains.

In the past, mountain areas, being rich in natural resources, were usually regarded as production bases of raw materials for big cities and plain areas. The raw materials include timber products, mineral and other resources. In western Sichuan Province, for instance, especially in Ganzi, Aba and Liangshan Prefectures, sum 300 million m 3 of timber have been produced from 1960s to 1998. All timber was sold in an official price that is lower than its real price.

3.2.2 Rapidly Growth of Population

Poverty is somewhat a population problem. Rapid growth of population and its low education are basic reasons for poverty. Population growth rate in mountain areas is very high: the natural growth rate of population in 1998 was 15.090/00 in Tibet, 14.480/00 in Qinghai, 14.260/00 in Guizhou, 12.920/00 in Hainan and 14.480/00 in Ningxia. Those provinces are the main areas where poverty happened. Population of rapid growth is beyond carrying capacity of mountain environment. Over-exploitation of resources may lead to environmental degradation.

3.2.3 Ethnical mountain areas are backward in social development.

Most of ethnic societies still remained primitive in the 1950s. Their life style and productive system hasn't much change. Under strong influence of traditional customs, people in ethnic areas have difficulties in absorbing advanced technologies in their production.

3.3 Environment and Ecosystem

Poverty is, at some extent, an ecological problem. Poverty is largely associated with local environment. Although mountain areas are the cradle of early agriculture and livestock, the birthplace of humans, they are facing many constraints for development of modern agriculture and other activities.

4 Suggestions for Anti-poverty

Anti-poverty in mountains is a hard task. Poverty alleviation in the new century should consider the following aspects:

4.1 Opportunities for development and advantages in natural resources

During process of transition from a planned economic system to a market-oriented system in China, the more developed areas in eastern part of China are eager to upgrade industrial structure. As a result of it low technical industry will transfer from more developed areas to underdeveloped areas. As a typical underdeveloped area, mountain areas (include hilly areas) have a large population with a potential of big market. At present consumption level in poverty-stricken mountain areas is low, which need more traditional products with low technology. Western China has a great potential for developing traditional industries in China.

4.2 The role of environmental conservation in mountain areas

Most of poverty-stricken mountain areas are located in fragile eco-zones with the following characteristics: First, annual climatic variation is large. Secondly, there is a low stability of ecosystem. Thirdly, there is a low function of ecosystem to recover to original situation.

Keeping the balance between the human being's activities and natural recovery ability would be the key issue for resource exploitation in the poverty-stricken mountain areas. For instance, western Sichuan is on the east edge of Qing-Tibet plateau and at the transition terrain from the first geographical terrain to the second, which play a vital role in conserving the ecosystem and environment of Sichuan Basin and Middle and Ending reaches of Yangtze River. Economic development in these areas should be based on environmental conservation.

4.3 Institutional building for antipoverty

The institutional building may cover the following aspects: establishment of the channels for access to capital and labor markets; formation of funding mechanism for construction of infrastructure and social services; establishment of social security ensuring system; establishment of participation system of local people in poverty alleviation.

4.4 Strategies foranti-poverty

4.4.1 Integrate anti-poverty into readjustment of agricultural structure

Agriculture is an economic growth point most poverty-stricken mountain areas. Unbalanced agricultural structure and low output of agriculture have hindered mountain development for a long time. Readjustment of agricultural structure will bring new opportunities and challenge to development of mountain areas.

4.4.2 To upgrade industrial structure by market mechanism

Market mechanisms should be introduced in upgrading industrial structure. We should not expect to establish a complete industrial system in mountain areas. In stead a comparatively advantageous industrial system should be established in mountain areas.

4.4.3 Exploit labor force

There are two ways to raise labor employment level in poverty-stricken mountain areas. One is to target adult labor force. More employment opportunities should be created to absorb surplus labor force through resource exploitation. The other is to promote development of primary education of young generations as potential labor force.

4.4.4 Promote social progress

Mountains, as barriers of exchange and communication between mountain areas or between mountain areas and outside world, have hindered development of mountain areas. Intervention of government can be used in the field of transportation facilities, public services like elementary education, public sanitation, the tap water and others. Market network is also very important to promote economic development in mountain areas.


Guo, Z., 2001, Studies on Urban and Rural Employment in Poverty Areas of Southwest China, Sichuan University Press, 2001 (in Chinese)

Li, Z., 1997, Studies on Relationship between Development in Poverty Mountain Areas and Ecosystem Change, Shanxi Economics Press (in Chinese)

Tan, C.,1999, Development Economics, Shanxi Economics Press (in Chinese)

Thirlwall, A., P., 1992, Growth and Development, China People's University Press (in Chinese)

Zhao, X., 2001, Difficulties and Problems in Poverty Alleviation in Western China and Poverty Alleviation Strategy, Southwest Finance and Economics University Press (in Chinese)

1 Institute of Economy, Sichuan Academy of Social Sciences
Chengdu City, 610072, P.R.China
e-mail address: maoyings@yahoo.com.cn