The number of Chinese living in abject poverty rose by 800,000 last year, the first such increase in 25 years and since the start of economic reforms, one of the top officials on poverty alleviation was quoted yesterday as saying.
Natural disasters were to blame for the first surge in the number of people earning less than 637 yuan (US$77) a year since 1978 when China launched its economic reforms and began opening up to the outside world, said Liu Jian, director of the Poverty Alleviation Office.
However, the number of people who made less than 882 yuan a year was reduced by 1.28 million, state media quoted Liu as saying.
China has about 85.17 million rural residents who live in dire poverty, accounting for 9.1 percent of population in the countryside, Liu said. Those earning between 637 yuan and 882 yuan totalled 56.17 million, he said.
China lifted 221 million people out of absolute poverty between 1978 and last year, the official People's Daily said, adding that 29 million were living in such conditions as of the end of last year.
Poverty has helped to spawn prostitution, robberies, burglaries and trafficking in women and children in the past 25 years.
Communist Party leaders, wary of the potential for social unrest, have declared war on poverty and pledged to narrow the yawning gap between rich and poor.
More than two decades of reform have seen the average net income of farmers rise to 2,622 yuan a year, the media said without giving a comparative figure.
Poverty alleviation has been a battle in the new century with less than 2 million people lifted out of dire poverty each in 2001 and 2002, compared with an average of 6 million annually in the 1990s, Liu said.
The central and local governments poured 48.8 billion yuan into the battle against poverty in 592 counties nationwide between 1997 and 1999, the semi-official China News Service said.
Of that, 4.34 billion yuan was embezzled by corrupt government officials, an audit by the National Audit Administration revealed.
China's definition of abject poverty is much lower than the international definition, which puts income at less than US$1 a day. About 140 million people live in such conditions.