Small Works: Poverty and Economic Development in Southwestern China
John Donaldson - Associate Professor, Political Science, Singapore Management University
Why do some polities adopt economic strategies that focus on poverty reduction, as opposed to economic growth? As China decentralized in the 1980s, many provinces received the latitude to implement their own strategies and approaches to economic development. Such strategies varied regionally as provinces with different levels of wealth and resources implemented different approaches to achieving economic development. Yet, some of these examples are quite puzzling, with provinces that share many similarities implementing markedly different strategies. Moreover, some provinces not only implemented different approaches to economic development, but also adopted entirely different goals – interpreting the very definition of economic development differently.
For many years, Guizhou's leadership pursued a development path that did not focus exclusively economic growth. Instead, their approach can be classified as a 'micro-oriented state' focused on rural poverty reduction (Donaldson 2011). Moreover, this strategy was top-down, but focused primarily on promoting economic opportunities for poor people – opportunities that were often low-tech and small in scale. Although these opportunities – through construction of rural roadway, promotion of migration, and the development of the coal and tourism industries in ways that encourage the participation of the rural poor – reduced poverty, it did not spark significant economic growth. This was the strategy largely used by Guizhou leaders from the late 1980s to the late 2000s. However, at least since 2008, the overall direction for that province’s policy changed markedly, with Guizhou’s leaders pursuing development polices based on large-scale investment, industrialization and urbanization. This allows us to examine the degree to which new leaders with different commitments and ideas can fight against the forces of path dependency and inertia to stake out different directions. The results have implications for our understanding not only of decentralization, central–provincial relations and our understanding of the policies and legacy of China’s former top leader, Hu Jintao, as well as the new policy approach promoted by the new leadership.