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An achievement second to none

By KISHORE MAHBUBANI | China Daily Global | Updated: 2020-09-18 07:40


Many of the people who write about human rights are Western writers who were born and grew up in affluent societies. So they have no understanding of the more fundamental needs of poor people. Instead, for example, they emphasize the importance of the right to vote. What is the importance of the right to vote if people do not have enough to eat?

This is why all people who promote human rights should emphasize five fundamental rights before all others.

One, the right to live safely without being killed. Two, the right to have enough to eat, to avoid starvation. Three, the right to have basic medical care. Four, the right to be educated. Five, the right to have a job with an income to feed oneself and one's dependents. If people cannot enjoy these five rights, people will not be able to enjoy all the other human rights.

These five rights are fundamental. This is the reason why China's recent past is very important for the rest of the world to understand. Over the past 40 years, China has delivered these five basic rights to its people more quickly and more comprehensively than any other country has done in human history.

And the reason why this accomplishment is even more remarkable is that before these 40 years, the majority of the people in China had their lives threatened by foreign invasions, by civil war, by famine and starvation, by a lack of medical care, by a lack of access to modern education and well-paying jobs.

Indeed, the Chinese people suffered a great deal in the century of humiliation from the Opium War to the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949. It is important to understand the very difficult conditions from which the Chinese people came before their recent achievements to understand how far they have come.

And it is also true that for the longest part of Chinese history, thousands of years, the living conditions of the Chinese people in the rural areas did not improve.

The vast majority of Chinese villagers lived very hard lives, struggling to stay alive. They had barely enough to eat, nor access to education or healthcare. Their life expectancy was very low. There are some statistics that demonstrate how remarkable China's development has been. As recently as 1980, as I said earlier, close to 100 percent of the Chinese people in the rural areas experienced poverty. By 2016, 36 years later, rural poverty had declined by 95.5 percent.

And if you look at the overall picture and the entire population of China, the figures of poverty reduction are equally strong. In 1980, over 90 percent of the total population of China, 981 million were living on less than $3.2 a day. By 2016, the number had fallen to 5.4 percent. That's a remarkable reduction.

Now, this Chinese story of unprecedented human development is important for the world to understand not just to better understand China, but because even today, there are still many people living in poverty in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The most important thing we need to do for these people is to help them escape from poverty.

Until recently, many economists believed that eliminating poverty was a mission impossible. But the story of China tells us that is not the case and that ending poverty is a mission possible. That is why we need to spread the story about China to every corner of the world.

But the big question remains, how did China succeed in achieving this seemingly impossible task? The answer is that China carried out some correct policies, both domestically and internationally, to achieve its poverty reduction goals.

On the domestic front, when I was dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, I taught the students at the school that for countries to succeed, they should follow the MPH formula-meritocracy, pragmatism and honesty.

China has been able to improve the quality of governance in China by implementing meritocracy. Meritocracy means that the Chinese government is able to select the best people to work and serve in its many agencies. And when you have good governance, you can have the right policies to improve people's lives.

P stands for pragmatism. And the best definition for pragmatism actually come from the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, who said it does not matter if the cat is black or white, if it catches mice, it is a good cat. China has this unique ability to select the best policies from the world and learn the best practices, and implement them in a pragmatic fashion. So pragmatism is another thing that can be learned from China.

Finally, H stands for honesty. At the end of the day, as history teaches us, the countries that succeed are the ones that are able to fight against corruption and ensure that the resources of the state are used to help the people rather than be put in private pockets.

On the international front, China has carried out the right policies by integrating itself into the liberal rules-based international order. If the whole world can replicate China's experience in poverty reduction, we would then have achieved the greatest improvement in the human condition since recorded history began.

The author is a professor at the National University of Singapore and a former Singaporean ambassador to the United Nations. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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