December 8, 2021


Only The Finest Women

China’s new goal for income distribution: Insights from survey data

China’s new intention for cash flow distribution: Some insights from study information back again to 1981

China’s political management not too long ago dedicated to growing the proportion of middle-income groups to build a much less polarised, and a lot more ‘olive-shaped’, distribution of wealth. This column considers the opportunity trade-offs between lessening cash flow polarisation and other goals, which includes poverty reduction. An clear concern is how the approach of economic expansion impacts the extent of polarisation, but the country’s historic file does not issue to any severe trade-offs heading forward, together with with financial progress, poverty reduction, and general social welfare.  However, likely trade-offs would need to have to be regarded further more in the context of precise plan endeavours, these kinds of as expanding social service protection in rural locations.

Beyond the preferred objective of ending poverty, national leaders seldom articulate a purpose for the nationwide distribution of money. In an exception, at a well known and broadly described meeting in August 2021 of the Chinese Group Party’s Central Committee for Money and Financial Affairs, President Xi Jinping argued that the aim of “common prosperity” for China demanded an “olive-shaped distribution composition of large middle and tiny ends” (as noted by the Xinhua News Agency 2021). In limited, the proposed goal of the Chinese leadership is to “expand the proportion of middle-cash flow groups” (Xinhua News Company 2021), or what The Economist dubbed “fleshing out the olive” in an post reporting on President’s Xi’s speech. 

President Xi was evidently not declaring that this is the only coverage objective for China, even amid aims associated to the distribution of cash flow. (Xi has frequently emphasised the intention of ending poverty.) So, the issue in a natural way arises as to what trade-offs may exist with regard to other plans. That is a difficult query. Trade-offs can be really hard to recognize ex-post in observable facts, which also reflect previous shocks and coverage selections (provided trade-offs faced at the time). To see what historic knowledge indicates about trade-offs with regard to this new goal calls for that we quantify attainments of the many distributional objectives, which includes defining and measuring the plan of “fleshing out the olive” (Economist 2021). 

China’s nicely-documented results in reducing complete poverty came, of course, with a soaring share of its population living over formal poverty traces (Chen and Ravallion 2021). A lot of of these who escaped complete poverty joined China’s center-class. Naturally, what this usually means relies upon on the location. The prevailing definition of a center-money group can be envisioned to transform above time with mounting living criteria what was regarded a center income in the China of the 1980s is obviously not the very same now. “Fleshing out the olive” can be interpreted as cutting down the distribute of incomes relative to the current median, which may possibly provide a far more suitable reference issue than a set complete amount of real revenue. 

This point of view indicates that the principle of polarisation as discovered in economics is appropriate to checking China’s functionality in “fleshing out the olive” and figuring out potential trade-offs from other objectives. And there is a measure accessible in the literature, namely the Foster-Wolfson (FW) polarisation index (Foster and Wolfson 2010). The better the spread of incomes relative to the median (in either course), the higher the FW index. What trade-offs might be uncovered concerning this concept of polarisation and other aims for the distribution of income? And what does the time-series proof recommend? 


Our new paper (Ravallion and Chen 2021) details to some theoretical arguments about possible trade-offs concerning lowering earnings polarisation – interpreted as the spread of incomes relative to the median – and other valued plans, which includes poverty reduction. Some procedures that are fantastic for battling poverty and inequality could well be polarising. Policymakers have to have to be aware of these prospective trade-offs. How a great deal they subject in exercise is an open query. 

An obvious issue is how the course of action of economic progress impacts the extent of polarisation. One particular can make theoretical arguments both way. A growth procedure that only raises incomes (relative to the median) for the upper 50 percent of the distribution will evidently be polarising, even though a development process that only raises incomes for the poorest 50 percent (relative to the median) will be de-polarising.  On the other hand, a distribution-neutral advancement method – whereby all money amounts improve by the similar proportion – will leave the polarisation index unchanged. Still this sort of a advancement course of action can be powerful in cutting down absolute and weakly relative poverty, as very well as enriching the center course in complete conditions (Ravallion 2016). 

When it is not a thing that has attracted much attention in the literature, a person might count on that the method of financial progress by structural transformation in a country like China can have a de-polarising influence, as the poorest go nearer to the center. Nor is this an part of the possible distributional alterations with progress that is most likely to be captured by the conventional inequality indices. Possibly de-polarising gains amid the poorer half may, even so, appear hand-in-hand with polarising gains amongst the (generally urban) upper 50 percent, comprised of elite, qualified employees and these who individual capital inventory and/or rental attributes.

Counterarguments to the strategy that a considerably less polarised distribution will generate lower economic advancement can also be drawn from the literature on advancement economics.  One strand of that literature has argued that a bigger middle-course share (by a variety of steps) can promote economic expansion and poverty reduction (our paper cites many papers on this subject matter). We have to have not discover any mixture trade-off above time.

Also relevant in the context of China is the evolution of the huge disparities uncovered between suggest incomes in city and rural locations. This reflects lengthy-standing inequalities in social procedures (overall health, schooling, and social protection) as properly as impediments to interior migration (notably by means of the hukou registration program) and administrative land allocation processes (our paper delivers references to the literature on these details). Specified the significant signify revenue gaps amongst China’s city and rural places, the degree of urban-rural sectoral fractionalisation – the extent to which persons live in different sectors – can also matter to the two profits inequality and polarisation. 

These observations propose that a concentrate on polarisation begs some new plan thoughts that will have to have even further thought. A notable example in modern China is the central government’s goal of getting rid of the hukou registration scheme – the interior ‘passport’ technique in China that restricts entry by rural migrants to urban products and services and markets. Whilst ongoing reforms to the hukou system would undoubtedly assistance reduce poverty, the effects on polarisation is unclear due to the fact the bulk of both equally the individual benefits and the charges of relaxing hukou restrictions could tumble on the decrease facet of the median, suggesting that these reforms could be polarising. The prospective for such polarising results of enjoyable hukou limitations would need to be well balanced versus other considerations, including poverty reduction. 

What the time-sequence evidence suggests

In addition to arguing that the Foster-Wolfson index is a close match to the spirit of the strategy of “fleshing out the olive” – and so presents a valuable resource for monitoring progress in attaining that goal – our new paper seems for indications of trade-offs in the mixture time collection details for China next Deng Xiaoping’s development-promoting reforms, which ended up introduced in the late 1970s. To take our estimates back to the early 1980s, we have no selection but to count on revealed tabulations of the distribution of money in China, as produced by the National Bureau of Figures (NBS). While the micro facts from NBS surveys are not publicly available, we use the info obtainable to estimate parameterised Lorenz curves individually for city and rural spots. We then combination these into a countrywide Lorenz curve, letting for the increased charge-of-residing in city China while factoring in variations in between the charges of cost inflation in city and rural areas (our solutions are described far more thoroughly in Ravallion and Chen 2021). 

Determine 1 summarises our estimates of the FW polarisation index over time. We see an general upward drift in the extent of polarisation nationally, while with two unique turning details: a quick a person in the mid-1990s and a different starting off in 2009. The TPs are a lot less pronounced in just each and every urban and rural location, suggesting the presence of some robust among-sector results.

Determine 1 Revenue polarisation indices for China

Supply: authors’ estimates, as documented in Ravallion and Chen (2021).

We little proof in the time-sequence knowledge of any damaging co-motion concerning polarisation (on the one particular hand) and financial growth or decreasing poverty and inequality (on the other). We discover that polarisation rose with mounting ordinary incomes up to 2009, but this appears to be spurious, reflecting typical time developments. Durations of greater poverty reduction or higher economic advancement did not ordinarily see more fast polarisation. And we locate solid co-motion in between the Gini index and the Foster-Wolfson polarisation index. Nor do we obtain that periods of a a lot more immediate increase in the urbanisation of the poorer fifty percent of the inhabitants (who started off nearly only in rural places) tended to be extra polarising. 

To the extent that lessening polarisation is a new plan intention for China, the historic document does not point to any critical trade-offs going ahead, which includes with economic development, poverty reduction, and in general social welfare. The modern reversal in the generally upward path for polarisation in China has been driven pretty much completely by attenuated median-normalised incomes amongst the upper fifty percent. 

Of exclusive relevance to future plan choices for lowering polarisation is our finding that the rise and drop in China’s countrywide polarisation index in Figure 1 is largely accountable to the evolution of the gap between city and rural suggest incomes. Here too, the historic history provides very little help for the idea that lessening city-rural disparities would be polarising without a doubt, the info we have assembled counsel the reverse. Nevertheless, probable trade-offs would have to have to be regarded even further in the context of particular coverage efforts, these as increasing social company coverage in rural spots, as very well as having account of how these endeavours are financed.


Chen, S and M Ravallion (2021), “Reconciling the Conflicting Narratives on Poverty in China”, Journal of Progress Economics 153 (November), forthcoming.

The Economist Journal (2021), “Fleshing Out the Olive”, 28 August.

Foster, J and M Wolfson (2010), “Polarization and the Decline of the Center Course: Canada and the U.S.”, Journal of Financial Inequality 8: 247–73.

Ravallion, M (2016), The Economics of Poverty: Historical past, Measurement, and Plan, New York: Oxford University Press.

Ravallion, M and S Chen (2021), “Fleshing Out the Olive? On Earnings Polarization in China”, NBER Performing Paper 29383. 

Xinhua Information Company (2021), “Xi Jinping Report Collection”, Beijing, 17 August.