A group of villagers in Guangxi province watch a ceremony celebrating the country’s poverty eradication campaign championed by Xi Jinping
A group of villagers in Guangxi province watch a ceremony on Thursday celebrating the country’s poverty eradication campaign championed by Xi Jinping © AFP via Getty Images

Xi Jinping has claimed personal responsibility for eradicating poverty in China in an attempt to assert his position as one of the country’s epoch-defining leaders.

The Chinese president on Thursday handed out medals and certificates in a ceremony broadcast live from the Great Hall of the People in Beijing that made scant mention of his predecessors, who presided over the bulk of the party’s decades-long efforts to raise incomes.

The commemoration followed recent reports in state media extolling Xi’s role in the anti-poverty drive he launched in 2013.

The propaganda push comes ahead of the centenary of the founding of the Chinese Communist party in July, with the president seeking to secure his place alongside Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping in the pantheon of great leaders.

“The master narrative being created is Xi being given personal credit for the eradication of poverty,” Carl Minzner, a professor of Chinese politics and law at Fordham University in New York, said. 

The emphasis helped to raise Xi in the party’s “ideological pantheon” of leaders so that he was higher than Deng and nearing Mao, a process that was intimately tied to how much longer he ruled, said Minzner.

China’s rubber-stamp legislature in 2018 voted to remove presidential term limits, clearing the way for Xi to rule for life. Analysts expect Xi to stay in power after his second term as general secretary of the party concludes late next year, and forecast the party will probably justify the break in practice by granting the president new accolades, such as the title of party “chairman” or “people’s leader”.

Poverty alleviation has been a central goal of the Communist party and an important pillar of its legitimacy since long before Xi took office. About 750m people in China have escaped extreme poverty since 1990.

Critics, however, point out that China’s extreme poverty line of about Rmb4,000 ($620) in annual income for 2020 — or $2.60 per day in purchasing power parity terms — remains below the level recommended by the World Bank for lower middle-income countries at $3.20 per day.

Xi’s campaign raised the political profile of anti-poverty efforts and added government funding for projects.

“Targeted poverty alleviation was the magic weapon for winning the war against poverty,” Xi said at the ceremony, referring to his policy initiative.

The People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist party, on Wednesday dedicated almost 23,000 characters to a blow-by-blow account of Xi’s role in leading the fight. 

Xi’s statements reveal “the people’s leader’s wholehearted devotion to the people”, the newspaper wrote.

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