Highways and housewarmings: What the Party Congress means for rural China

Brother Liu’s kitchen boasts a solitary decoration. A poster hangs on the plastered walls, framed by strips of tape and illuminated by a single dangling lightbulb. It depicts a massive President Xi Jingping and First Lady waving from atop a miniature Tiananmen, the Gate of Heavenly Peace in central Beijing. From the comfort of his portrait, Chairman Mao gazes confidently upon the masses who are dressed head to toe in various ethnic costumes and, with hands raised, cheer with a unified, almost audible “Ho!” In tiny Bangdong village some 2,000 miles from the capital, deep in the mountains of southwestern Yunnan Province, the message is simple: Xi’s leadership is a mandate from heaven, from the Party and for all Chinese.

Far away in Beijing, China’s 19th Party Congress concluded last week. The country’s most important political event, the congress convenes once every five years to lay out the Party’s policy vision and leadership. This year’s congress ended with a similarly clear message: Xi is China’s undisputed leader.

Provocative headlines paint Xi as analogous to Chairman Mao himself, suggesting he may not relinquish power once his term is up in 2022. Xi’s elimination of political rivals and failure to identify a clear successor—a break with Party norms—lends credibility to the claims. So does the congress’s unanimous vote to enshrine Xi Jinping Thought in the Party constitution. Again, the message is clear: Xi is in charge, and to challenge him, his ideology or his policies is to challenge the legitimacy of the Party itself. It was a watershed moment in formalizing political changes and crystalizing policy direction.

Beijing may have been the focus these past weeks, but as I prepare to begin my ICWA fellowship in rural Yunnan next month, my mind shifts back to that poster in Brother Liu’s kitchen: What could the results of the Congress and Xi’s ascendance mean for the future of rural China?


Americans may be baffled why a country that has suffered so much under authoritarian rule would welcome Xi’s unrivaled dominance. The main reason is simple: a better life for a fifth of the world’s population. For rural China specifically, that means continued progress in poverty elimination and infrastructure development. But only time will tell if an empowered Xi can really deliver on the promise of Xi Jinping Thought.

That’s what Xi thought

At its core, Xi Jinping Thought addresses “unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing need for a better life.” In rural areas, the government must address wealth inequality and unequal development between the coast and interior. “On the march toward common prosperity,” Xi stresses, “no one must be left behind.”

Addressing inequality is hardly new to Communist China. In 2015, the Party committed to completely eliminate poverty by 2020—an ambitious goal, to say the least. But the Party has been making progress by focusing on access to food, water and housing, as well as upgrades to the national education and public health systems.

That’s good news for Brother Liu in Bangdong. When I visited earlier this spring, the village was a flurry of construction with residents shoveling gravel, mixing concrete, smoothing foundations, tiling walls, drilling holes, laying pipes, sawing PVC and splitting rocks. The work never stopped.

New housing is a big driver of the bustle. Brother Liu, my host-father—a farmer-turned-construction worker—put in 12-hour days, seven days a week to keep up with construction demands. Costs are covered by government housing stipends in the name of poverty elimination. In addition to grants of up to the equivalent of $8,000, each household was offered $10,000 in interest-free loans, prompting families to tear down their traditional wooden homes and upgrade to multi-storied mansions of concrete and tile. On top of that, my host family borrowed some $50,000 from relatives to renovate its home. And the family seems happy, both with the home and the Party’s performance. Perhaps renovation, not religion, is the opiate of the masses.

The poverty-elimination initiatives do have critics, however. Some schemes have been rife with corruption or fluff rather than results. Good intentions have also had negative consequences. Consider my host family taking on debt for a non-income generating house, for example. Some also question tradeoffs between economic development and the kind of cultural repression taking place in Tibet or Xinjiang. Nevertheless, the number of Chinese living below the poverty line ($376 annual income) decreased from 70 million to 30 million over the past three years. According to Liu Yongfu, director of the State Council Leading Group Office of Poverty Alleviation and Development, efforts are strategic, specific and on target for 2020, and “will be definitely achieved.”


On the (belt and) road again

Infrastructure development will also play a critical role in eliminating poverty and fulfilling the promises of Xi Jinping Thought. The amended Party constitution now pledges to “pursue the Belt and Road initiative,” Xi’s pet project to develop global transport and trade infrastructure. It is expected to cover about two-thirds of the world’s population and a third of the world’s GDP. With both the belt and the road traversing western China, leaders anticipate the initiative will bring unprecedented growth to the underdeveloped region.

Already, infrastructure development of roads, power and the internet is being directed to poor areas to jumpstart growth. Not far from Bangdong village, a multi-billion yuan highway is under construction that will stretch across the province and connect the region with new markets. And just last year, a new road connected Bangdong with Lincang, the nearest urban center, reducing travel time from two days to only two hours. Party officials in the area are already exploring branding strategies for local teas, walnuts and coffee that previously had little market access.

As Bill Gates, China’s favorite philanthro-capitalist, says, “The last one percent is the most difficult.” For poverty elimination in China, geographic and cultural challenges mean the final push will require greater effort at higher expense, and questions remain. What about people not motivated to lift themselves out of poverty? Or those who fall back below the poverty line? How do ethnic minority-dominated areas respond to government efforts? How will the government resolve relative poverty after absolute poverty is eliminated? The Party’s task is formidable.

Still, China’s efforts to address unbalanced and inadequate development are on the right track so far. Like the rest of rural China, Bangdong is in transformation. Issues are sure to arise, and not all of them will be handled according to the democratic sensitivities of the West. However, the underlying policies of Xi Jinping Thought have already been at work for some time. Now they are formally canonized in the Party’s constitution and backed by Xi’s uncontested authority: Efforts for a better life in rural China will only accelerate.

What remains to be seen is how those efforts will play out. Fortunately, I will watch that story unfold first-hand over the next two years. A sincere thank you to the Institute of Current World Affairs (ICWA), to each board member and Bob Levinson especially for extending me the honor of becoming the institute’s inaugural Patricia and Robert Levinson Fellow. I depart next month for rural Yunnan, where I will begin writing my first official newsletter under the reassuring wave of Brother Liu’s solitary kitchen decoration. Ho!

To learn more about the Party Congress and China’s new leadership, please see the excellent coverage by former ICWA fellow Cheng Li at the Brookings Institution here.