Decisions taken by China’s new leaders will no doubt affect all strata of society, but many changes will have the greatest impact on the lives of the country’s poorest.
Many important changes have already taken place in China, overseen by the outgoing leadership. For example, a few years ago, barely one in five rural Chinese had medical insurance; now 96% of the population is covered. In addition, rural dwellers have benefited from a string of measures designed to improve the lives of the poorest. As well as the introduction of medical insurance which pays most of the cost for basic treatments, poorer Chinese families have benefited from the removal of agricultural tax, the introduction of pensions and the abolition of school tuition fees.
Recently, the lives of the poorest children have also been improved by the roll-out of free school meals. In a feature on China in The Guardian, one grandmother talks to the newspaper’s reporter about such changes as the free lunch her ten year-old grandson now receives at school. “Compared to rich people, our life is not that good – but it is much better than before”, she says.
This grandmother is one of many farmers in the remote and poor south-western Guizhou province, where existence can be a struggle, even with wages sent back by relatives. There is a huge and growing gap between wealthy and middle-income Chinese people living in the cities and the rural poor. However, the introduction of social protection subsidies and medical cover have made life more bearable for millions of China’s poorest.
Some now hope that the next leaders will tackle the ‘hukou’ system, where people are registered according to where they live and categorised as either urban or rural dwellers. Under this system, migrants who leave the countryside to find work in the cities are not entitled to claim social services such as health or education for their dependants. This is why so many working Chinese leave their children with grandparents when they go to jobs in the cities. And why when rural Chinese children have had a good meal, their next question is often when will they see their parents again.