US social entrepreneur lauds Chinese poverty alleviation achievements that he says set them apart from measures elsewhere
Editor's note: As China aims to eliminate extreme poverty and be a "moderately prosperous society" (xiaokang shehui) in time for the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China next year, we talk to leading experts for their take on the country's commitment.
It was a simple eye operation, at the cost of a common morning latte and muffin in cities, that changed the life of the nomadic family on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.
"I have had a picture for years in my studio of someone who could suddenly see and the whole family was behind. And their faces were all lit up. Because suddenly at that moment, this relative could see. It was transformational not only for that individual, but for all of them."
The life-changing moment counts as one of the most gratifying experiences for social entrepreneur and environmental activist Laurence Brahm, in his work in helping China fight poverty in recent decades. Brahm is also a senior international fellow at the Beijing think tank Center for China and Globalization, and an award-winning documentary filmmaker.
From setting up community-staffed medical clinics to digging solar-powered wells in remote highland areas, Brahm has grounded his approach to improving lives on his Himalayan Consensus development paradigm.
The consensus is built on the key principles of protecting local culture and identity through sustainable business models that are practical, prioritizing the environment with green energy and water conservancy technologies, and preventing conflict and violence that can be caused when people are disempowered, he said.
Brahm, trained in the United States as a lawyer and economist, arrived in China 40 years ago and worked with the government on financial, banking and enterprise reform through the 1990s. He has written more than 20 books covering major topics such as economic development reform in Asia. And his films, including Searching for the Lotus-Born Master, a 2018 documentary on the 8th-century Buddhist luminary Padmasambhava, who helped spread the religion in China, have won numerous accolades.
Brahm said the whole approach to development, progress and improvement of people's lives can be traced to Asian culture and philosophies, as opposed to Western and US models that focus predominantly on capital and stock markets.
"Everything is interconnected, everything is important," Brahm said. "Also, in those philosophies, all life is important.
"And so we're not looking just about growth. We're looking at the overall health of an economy. It's about a thriving economy, a healthy economy. I think balance is important. This is so key in Asian culture."
Those aspects have been integral in helping China lift, according to World Bank figures, 850 million people out of poverty since its reform and opening-up began in the late 1970s, Brahm said. The scale of those achievements has not been sufficiently acknowledged in the West, he said.
"The Chinese economy is managed with the intention to build and sustain a real economy. It's about real people and real things."
To that effect, Brahm's poverty alleviation work in rural communities throughout China has shown the importance of real benefits built on basic communications infrastructure, such as road networks, and education.
"That's a very big part of the success of China's elimination of poverty, because from the very beginning of initiating reforms, everything was about infrastructure," he said. "If you have a road, if you have rail, if you can create connectivity, you can create an economy.
"Aid is an emergency solution. If you want to eliminate poverty you have to create sustainability. You have to create situations in which people in their own community have the capacity to actually run their own businesses. They have products that they can sell. They have things that they can live on, even if that economy is within their own communities. But that economy has to be able to exist. And in many cases that depends on communications infrastructure."
The roads connect rural, needy areas to basic water and electricity supplies, significantly improving access to healthcare and education, Brahm said.
"We've opened up a number of medical clinics, and in many areas people don't have access to basic medical facilities because they're living in very isolated regions that are very inaccessible. When you're getting out into the countryside, when you're talking about driving three hours on small roads and further and you're in communities, if someone's sick, they don't have that accessibility.
"I've seen projects where nomadic kids are doing online learning. All they need to do is have a server there. They can have their Wi-Fi, they can be in contact. I've seen these types of systems in rural areas, even creating light, energy, enormous amounts of solar systems that have been provided to nomadic regions. That means that at night people have a light bulb in their tents and they can read. These are transformational."
Building the foundations of economic growth requires the tapping of new technologies away from fossil fuels toward green sustainability that also draw on the traditional wisdom of ethnic communities to help them exist in harmony with nature, Brahm said.
The political will to eliminate poverty is certainly a major driving force behind the country's successful efforts, he said.
More than 30 years ago, President Xi Jinping, then Party chief of Ningde city in Fujian province, set out to eradicate poverty. In his book Up and Out of Poverty, President Xi, also general secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, stresses four important principles: avoiding a "poverty mentality" (ie, if you believe you are poor, you will be); adopting development measures that are suited to local conditions; the importance of strong leadership and coordination; and not wasting money on grandiose projects just because they may be popular. The way China has handled the novel coronavirus outbreak, for example, contrasts greatly with the thinking of some Western leaders, Brahm said.
"The attitude here is that every life is important. We are going to stop this pandemic for everyone, and everyone's going to make sacrifices together in order to achieve that. We contrast that with some of the decision-making in the West.
"Here in China every single life needs to be taken care of. We have to do this together. The country has come from a situation I witnessed, when I was here in 1981, when people were poor. They have systematically tried to pull the whole population out of poverty. Now we can see a rising middle class. The bulk of people are benefiting materially.
"And now they're looking at benefiting them environmentally. That has become a priority. The environment has become as much a priority as economic growth was before, because that's about the health of an economy. It's not just about the stock markets, it's about people and their long-term livelihoods.
"Whenever you talk to officials, education and environment are now the priorities."
This "Chinese approach or model" to development is in line with cultural sensitivities and priorities that may not be so apparent in the West, Brahm said.
"I think it's very important to look at traditions. The economic models that have been promoted by the Washington consensus, World Bank, IMF, all of these institutions for years have been models which have been based on a sort of academic set of theories.
"But people respond to other things. They respond to their own culture. They have their own sociological ideas; religion, heritage, family. These are all very important.
"The Washington consensus is based on the idea that you liberate capital markets, you open up foreign exchange, you effectively force an economic model on to societies that may not be ready for it and may not be interested in it, because it may not be the way that society functions. It may not be the way people think.
"If you think about the leadership here, many of the leaders in China have worked running enterprises, they've been in communities, they've been at the grassroots level. So they have pretty much a clear picture of all levels of government, business corporations, finance. They've been there, done that."
Still, while China has made impressive strides toward its stated goal of eliminating extreme poverty by the end of the year, major challenges remain－with the COVID-19 pandemic and its disruption to other economies and growth worldwide presenting a formidable obstacle, Brahm said.
"But the direction is set, and that's what's important. The political will is there to wipe out poverty. It's not about creating stock market fluctuations so that rich people can play arbitrage. It's not about 1 percent controlling most of the assets of a nation for their own benefit. It is about trying to create a broad-based benefit that everyone can share."
Toward shared prosperity
Successfully tackling poverty is in turn a major step toward the creation of a middle class, in line with China's stated aim of being a "moderately prosperous society" and in time for the centenary celebration of the founding of the Communist Party of China next year, Brahm said.
"So we've seen over the past couple of years a complete transformation, with China going from abject poverty to a broad-based prosperity that is shared among the population.
"This is of course compared to the American approach which over these decades is focused only on the capital markets and certain elite industries, creating a situation in which only a select 1 percent of 1 percent of the people hold all the assets and wealth and the middle class is being forced to join the ranks of the poor."
The next steps in China's development, toward a "shared prosperity", will be crucial, Brahm said.
"One of the considerations now is to actually move people back to their villages, but people are not going to go back to a village which has been left behind.
"So the new stages of investment, in infrastructure, will be to create smart, green and blue ecological cities in rural areas people can return to and have the benefits that they would have had in coastal cities, and maybe even better benefits, because these will be new cities and they'll be designed in a way which is more ecologically sensitive and more sustainable and in many ways offering higher quality of living than some of these cities which have been built up on the foundations of earlier economic models."
"Continued investment in education, focused on technology, and advancing these areas, will all be new driving factors for the economy together with technology for the environment and healthcare.
"This will of course be transformational and will provide better quality living benefits to people, creating a more overall prosperous or healthier society, a bulging middle class as opposed to a narrowing one. And this we can consider shared prosperity."
Laurence J. Brahm is an international lawyer, crisis mediator, social entrepreneur, environmental activist, author and award-winning documentary film director. He is a senior international fellow at the Center for China and Globalization, the founding director of the Himalayan Consensus Institute, and co-chair of the Silk Spice Road Dialogues convened by the United Nations Development Programme. He received the 2019 China Friendship Award on the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.