China tries to censor data about nearly 1 billion people in poverty

Internet censors in China worked around the clock this week to suppress online discussions about poverty in the country after an economist revealed nearly 1 billion people were living off less than $300 a month.

A hashtag on Weibo, China’s X-like microblogging app, pointed to the ongoing income inequality by stating that “964 million people” were surviving on monthly incomings of 2,000 Chinese yuan, or about $280.

On Tuesday, the hashtag about China‘s economic woes briefly reached the No. 1 spot on Weibo’s trending page before it was taken down. A day earlier, Li Xunlei, chief economist at Zhongtai Securities, had published an article that highlighted the data.

Despite signs of stress appearing across various sectors, Beijing has not come up with a stimulus package as part of its post-pandemic economic recovery. The country’s major property giants, Evergrande and Country Garden, defaulted on their debt this year as help from the government failed to materialize.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping has instead made calls for improving income distribution through a campaign of “common prosperity,” with the censorship once again revealing just how sensitive Beijing is to any debate about China’s economic performance—a metric tied directly to Xi’s legitimacy and right to govern.

On Weibo, searches for the now disabled hashtag returned a notice reading: “In accordance with relevant laws, regulations and policies, the content of this topic cannot be displayed.”

It is a common censorship tactic that stops popular topics from gaining traction among the website’s 600 million monthly active users, who have recently been sent automated messages advising them not to badmouth the economy, a message that has been driven home by China’s spy agency, the Ministry of State Security.

In his article for the business outlet Yicai, Li cited data from a 2021 research paper by the China Institute of Income Distribution at Beijing Normal University, which placed the number of people living on less than 2,000 yuan a month at 964 million, or nearly 70 percent of the population.

Li assessed the state of the Chinese economy and discussed pressing challenges as well as the potential for growth.

His article, which was later taken down, said China was at an “inflection point” because of its population structure, which was once declining and aging. Li nonetheless concluded that competent government leadership could enable further economic growth, possibly doubling China’s GDP by 2035.

This photo, taken on June 13, 2023, shows a bank employee counting 100-yuan notes at a bank counter in Nantong, in China’s eastern Jiangsu province. China’s government censors removed hashtag about people’s nearly billion people’s low incomes.
China Out/AFP

In June 2020, Wang Haiyuan and Meng Fanqiang, the authors behind the income study cited by Li this week, published an article in China’s leading financial news magazine Caixin, in which they quoted late Premier Li Keqiang‘s comments about the estimated 600 million Chinese people who were living on less than 1,000 yuan, or $140, a month.

“Although 40 years of reform and opening up have greatly improved the country’s comprehensive strength and level of national income, as of today, the fact that we have a large population, few resources and very uneven development is still obvious, and a considerable number of residents are still close to the poverty line,” Wang and Meng wrote.

Their old article was also deleted from Caixin’s website in the aftermath of efforts to suppress Li’s more recent analysis.

At the end of 2020, China’s President Xi declared a “complete victory” over absolute poverty in the country, which Beijing defines as living off 2,300 yuan a year. He said the last remaining 99 million people were lifted out of the category, but the message arrived to little fanfare at the time.

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