Nara Dillon’s work in China seeks lessons from the country’s successful battle against poverty that might be applied elsewhere.

Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

Nation & World

Looking to China for lessons on helping the poor

7 min read

Harvard’s many research ties to that nation reflect broad engagement, as President Bacow visits

China learned from other nations as it modernized its economy and embraced aspects of capitalism, but knowledge flows in both directions. Now, one Harvard scholar thinks there may be lessons for the rest of the world in a great Chinese success story: slashing poverty.

Between 1990 and 2015, China reduced extreme poverty by 94 percent, a change so dramatic and affecting so many people that it accounts for fully half of the global reduction in extreme poverty (defined as living on less than $1.25 per day) over that time. In fact, according to senior lecturer on government Nara Dillon, the United Nation’s 2015 announcement that it had achieved its Millennium Development Goal of halving global extreme poverty would have been impossible without the gains in China.

Dillon said her research on China’s antipoverty programs may have limited value in developed nations where such extreme poverty is uncommon, but it likely has important implications in the developing world, where not only is extreme poverty common, but where the agricultural landscape of many small subsistence farms mirrors China’s.

“I think it’s most relevant to other developing countries where farmers are still a large part of the population,” Dillon said.

Dillon’s work is part of Harvard’s broad intellectual engagement with China that dates back to the 1800s, when famed plant collector Ernest H. Wilson began gathering samples of East Asian flora for the Arnold Arboretum and Chinese scholar Ko K’un-hua became the first instructor to teach the Chinese language here.

This week, President Larry Bacow becomes the latest Harvard leader to visit China. His trip, scheduled for spring break week, from Sunday through March 23, will take him to Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Beijing, where he’ll deliver a speech at Peking University. He will visit Japan after leaving China.

After Harvard’s initial engagement with China, the ties expanded through the 20th century as  early, tenuous connections strengthened and diversified into a robust scholarly and intellectual exchange that led to the founding, more than 60 years ago, of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. Named for John King Fairbank, a founding figure of Chinese studies in the U.S., the center was the primary home for Chinese study at Harvard. Its director, Michael Szonyi, the Frank Wen-hsiung Wu Memorial Professor of Chinese History, said the scholarly connections between Harvard and China have overflowed the center’s walls and now encompass all of Harvard’s Schools and a wide array of disciplines.

The Fairbank Center’s role remains central, said Szonyi — who visited China 10 times last year — but in many cases it is one that coordinates and assists the work of scholars in the University’s disparate Schools.

“What I hear from a number of Harvard faculty is that in order to be at the top of the game, you have to make connections with Chinese scholars.”

Mark Elliott

Today, a search for “China” in the Harvard course catalog turns up more than 90 classes as diverse as Chinese language studies (through the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, founded in 1937), foreign policy, economics, art, cinema, sustainable development, and even “forbidden romance.” The 1,000 or so Chinese students studying at Harvard make up the School’s largest group from outside the U.S., and many Chinese scholars and faculty members teach and conduct research. Harvard students and faculty members travel regularly to China — the University’s most popular destination for travel abroad — and say that collaborations with Chinese researchers are critical if they are to advance work in a number of disciplines.

“In many fields, the best work is being done in China by Chinese researchers,” said Mark Elliott, Harvard’s vice provost for international affairs and the Mark Schwartz Professor of Chinese and Inner Asian History. “What I hear from a number of Harvard faculty is that in order to be at the top of the game, you have to make connections with Chinese scholars.”

In addition to the Fairbank Center and the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, Harvard is home to the Harvard-Yenching Institute, which was established in 1928 and pioneered many  scholarly connections with China; the Harvard-China Project on Energy, Economy, and Environment; the Harvard China Fund, which provides University-wide funding for China-related work, internships, and summer school; and the China programs of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, which foster policy-focused investigation and education, including executive education.

The University also has a permanent footprint in Shanghai with the Harvard Center Shanghai, sponsored by the China Fund and Harvard Business School, and runs — via the Harvard-China Project and with Tsinghua University colleagues — a long-running air-quality monitoring station north of Beijing, with a second in the works south of the city. The two stations will provide before-and-after samples for a comparative analysis of the air entering and leaving the metropolis.

Bacow’s trip comes at a time of problematic relations between the U.S. and China and also of heightened internal tension in the Asian giant, which has led to crackdowns that have affected everyone from academics to ethnic minorities.

Despite such tensions, it is important that engagement continue and that academic inquiry remain free of influence, Szonyi said. Relations between governments ebb and flow according to the foreign-policy vagaries of the moment. Over time, however, scholarly engagement not only bears fruit through new findings and discoveries, but it provides a stabilizing influence between nations and maintains communication lines at a subnational level, between scientific colleagues, between students who have become acquainted during summer programs, and between former mentors and students who may have gone on to hold positions of influence. In addition, Elliott, Szonyi, and other Harvard faculty emphasize the importance of continued engagement to support Chinese colleagues experiencing government pressures and to express concerns that domestic voices in China may be unable to express.

In recent years, Harvard’s China engagement has borne much fruit. Harvard researchers have spotlighted Coca-Cola’s outsized influence on obesity science and policy in China; examined the potential for military conflict between the two nations; run large-scale experiments aimed at improving health care delivery; launched a $3.75 million project to investigate energy development and climate change; documented the government’s millions of fake social media posts aimed at influencing public opinion; written a best-selling book about major Chinese philosophers; studied the slow emergence of private philanthropy; and published an award-winning translation of the complete works of Du Fu, considered one of China’s greatest poets.

Dillon’s research is one example of the many lines of investigation now underway. Her work on China’s anti-poverty programs tracks much of their success to two major reforms in the 1980s. The first one abolished collective farms in favor of a system in which individual farmers hold long-term leases on  land and can keep the proceeds from any surplus sold in private markets. The change resulted in a surge in agricultural production and family incomes.

The second reform was a dramatic increase — as much as 91 percent in the case of some grains — in the prices the government pays for agricultural products. Those two reforms marked the end, Dillon said, of rural farm policies borrowed from the Stalinist Soviet Union that intentionally kept rural living standards low so that the economic surplus could be invested in urban and industrial development.

The lessons from the Chinese reforms, Dillon said, are probably most applicable in developing nations whose economic policies, albeit under a capitalist system, seek to encourage industrialization and urbanization over rural agriculture. From a poverty-reduction standpoint, Dillon said, the Chinese success was largely reached by doing the opposite: incentivizing and benefiting rural agriculture. And, with so many small farms across the Chinese countryside, the improvement in life for farmers meant a broad-based boost in the national standard of living. Ironically, she said, it is more common for rich nations to subsidize their agriculture industries.

“The broader lesson that countries can draw is to reduce the urban bias in their development policies,” Dillon said. “One of the ironies of these kinds of agricultural development policies is that rich countries subsidize farmers and poor countries don’t. They often make farmers subsidize urbanites.”