Open Access
1 February 2008 Poverty and Inequality among Chinese Minorities
Darren S. Crook
Author Affiliations +

Poverty and Inequality among Chinese Minorities by A.S. Bhalla and Shufang Qiu. London and New York: Routledge, 2006. xx + 202 pp. US$160. ISBN10: 0-415-30840-2; ISBN13: 9-78-0-415-30840-3.

* * *

This short book presents empirical evidence on the impacts of post-Mao Zedung economic reform in China upon poverty and inequality amongst Chinese minorities. It mainly covers the period of 1978–1998, which means that it is already somewhat dated. Minorities are numerous and diverse throughout China, but their main settlements, as noted in the preface, are found in either hilly or mountainous terrain. Around 60% of the land is occupied by minorities, who in turn represent 40–50% of the absolute poor in China. There is emphasis on data from southwest China, despite the existence of large ethnic minority populations in other regions of China.

A major criticism of the book is that it often relies on generalizations about mountain life that ignore the heterogeneity of mountain areas in China. For example, the analysis of dualisms like “plain/hilly” masks inherent geographical disparities that are present throughout China. The authors accept that perceptions of minorities and their levels of poverty may in part be culturally and idealistically determined, particularly amongst the Han majority, but what group do they come from, and how much does their background cloud their views of minority/Chinese history? For example, the Bai have farmed the upland plains in the Dali region for reasonably long historical periods, which counters the authors' assumptions about minority behavior (p 40).

This is a book with many tables, but too few maps or figures. A map of provinces and autonomous provinces would have proved most useful. The authors frequently use the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) household survey data to support statistics from the Chinese government; however, by their own admissions, there are methodological limitations to using these data to measure poverty. The reader must be cautioned against the representative nature of the data based on minorities living inside and outside autonomous areas, which are the chosen unit of measurement. At the smallest scale, the authors analyze intracounty differences, but do not point out microvariations in environment that may be important factors influencing poverty within these counties. The comprehensiveness and consistency of data are sometimes questionable: for example, in Table 2.8 the Dali Bai autonomous prefecture is not included, yet Table 2.10 lists the Bai as the second largest minority group. Other criticisms relate to switching the unit of analysis from individual to household, and omitting religion from analysis.

The book starts with a general discussion about the meanings attached to definitions of absolute and relative poverty, and provides a good review of poverty indicators—although European examples are used rather than Chinese. How relevant are 19th century classes of poverty in the UK to China? Later countrywide comparisons with contemporary development in India are somewhat more useful. The following chapter shows that income inequality has grown, with the rich getting richer. Minorities have sometimes fared better than the Han majority: for example, income grew much faster among minorities (33%) in Guizhou and Yunnan than among the Han majority (9%) from 1988 to 1995 (p 67). This is attributed to space, tourism, border trade, a reduced educational gap between Han and minorities, and increased non-farm activity. Economics, rather than culture and ethnicity, are said to explain poverty; this finding counters the official stereotypical Chinese view that different cultural and social views provide the preconditions for poverty and “backwardness” (a term I dislike).

Chapter 4, on literacy and basic education, looks at Tibet, which has the biggest disparity in rates of literacy between Han Chinese and minorities. It fails, however, to acknowledge that some minorities do not have a written language. A policy shift that de-emphasized non-formal education schools, coupled with increased privatization, has influenced minorities' education. Living in rural areas and remote rural areas in the mountains reduces effective literacy and denies access to information, thus preventing development. However, it appears that geographical factors have a relatively weak influence on educational attainment, even though the approach to poverty programs in impoverished regions has been ineffective. The data confirm that gaps in educational attainment have widened, despite affirmative action, and the authors touch on the sensitive subject of how the spread of minority education, whilst increasing earning potential, also has the political danger of spreading ethnic demands.

Chapter 5 addresses minorities' health status and services. Rather surprisingly, living in hilly areas is found to have no statistically significant effect on access to clean drinking water. Households in the plains are said to have much higher probabilities of access to clean drinking water than those living in the hills, who have access roughly on a par with households in mountainous areas, a point that emphasizes the need for better conceptual development of these broad terms to understand such differences.

Chapter 6 appraises the role of 3 anti-poverty policies and programs—the food-for-work, micro-credit and rural labor mobility programs operating in Sichuan—even though Yunnan has the greatest proportion of poverty counties. These policies are found to be biased in favor of minority administrators in terms of central government budgetary fund allocation; however, widening gaps in poverty are explained by poor policy implementation, a lack of commitment towards betterment of minorities, or inadequate resources for this purpose. A conflict of interest between subsidized loans and microcredit schemes is exposed, with the Poor Areas Development Office and the Agricultural Development Bank both favoring the non-poor. The preference for rural credit cooperatives to prefer financial deposits as a guarantee on loans, rather than land as collateral, clearly prejudices mountain dwellers from obtaining formal credit. The authors view this as a failure caused by targeting poor areas rather than poor people. Concluding remarks are that food-for-work programs are more successful and beneficial to minority poor people than the subsidized loan scheme and microcredit.

The last chapter discusses specificities of anti-poverty programs in Guizhou, which seems a strange choice for the conclusion of the book. Part of the justification for writing this comes from the lack of western literature on the province, yet there is insufficient reference to Chinese, Taiwanese, or Japanese academic literature throughout the book. It is also surprising that there is no discussion of the potential of IT initiatives to overcome physical hurdles leading to poverty. The authors conclude that minorities are not targeted by anti-poverty programs, and that the most remote areas are missed out from existing anti-poverty programs, just like minorities who do not live in autonomous areas.

A general remark on the concluding comments of this and all other chapters is that they rarely offer greater insight or explanation into the causes of poverty. Indeed, this book poses as many questions as it answers! It contains many assumptions about mountain life that are not justified. Despite some of my reservations about the book, readers of Mountain Research and Development may find it of interest not least because, as the authors claim, this is a much needed contribution towards improving our understanding of minorities living in mountainous environments—a subject that is often ignored.

Darren S. Crook "Poverty and Inequality among Chinese Minorities," Mountain Research and Development 28(1), 93-95, (1 February 2008).
Published: 1 February 2008
Back to Top