Beyond 2020: Discussing Universal Basic Income as a Potential Poverty Alleviation Policy Option for China

October 19, Beijing - A roundtable discussion on Universal Basic Income (UBI) was recently hosted by the United Nations Development Programme in China (UNDP China) in Beijing. The roundtable brought together more than 45 representatives from academia, United Nations agencies, government, embassies and civil society to exchange viewpoints and share ideas on the concept of UBI and its potential in China.

With the rising digitalization of the workplace, UBI has been receiving increased attention worldwide. As an alternative system of social security that provides an unconditional basic payment to all citizens, UBI offers a response to potential challenges posed by technological innovation, including future job losses to automation, as well as a potential policy option for poverty alleviation. Through this roundtable, UNDP China hoped to invite discussion from policy makers and development practitioners on the topic of UBI and its potential in China.

The roundtable event was chaired by Mr Patrick Haverman, UNDP China Deputy Country Director. “With the Sustainable Development Goals firmly focused on the need to ‘leave no one behind’, careful consideration of a wide variety of responses will be essential,” said Mr Haverman, during his opening remarks. ”It is very important that we can foster collaborative discussions around potential options to address poverty and inequality into the future, and the role of UBI should not be overlooked.”

Professor Zhiyuan Cui, from Tsinghua University School of Public Policy and Management, also spoke at the roundtable. Professor Cui addressed one of the key challenges facing implementation of a UBI, the argument that that provision of unconditional payments would reduce the incentive to work. In his speech, he suggested that individuals would likely still choose to work under the UBI model, despite potentially having increased financial security, but also highlighted the need for further research.

Professor Qingyi Li, Programme Officer with the International Labor Organization for China and Mongolia (ILO) spoke of the changing world of work. Professor Li indicated that while previous industrial progress led to an increase in the number and quality of jobs, the current wave of technological innovation is unique in its fast pace of change and the broader scope of jobs affected. She encouraged consideration of alternative forms of redistribution to ensure that fairness is safeguarded in our future world of work.

To better explore UBI and its potential in China, UNDP China recently released a working paper entitled ‘Universal Basic Income: A Policy Option for China Beyond 2020?’. Dr Yuan Zheng, UNDP China National Economist, introduced the paper, discussing the various advantages and disadvantages of UBI and considering its potential future applicability. Dr Zheng highlighted various advantages for implementation in China, including technological innovation and government commitment to inclusive growth, as well as underlining challenges of universal delivery and local implementation.

Professor Jianwen Liu from Peking University also discussed the importance of fairness in his vision of taxation reform in China. Professor Liu discussed several possible reforms to improve equality, such as increasing income taxation standards and raising the proportion of direct taxes. In addition, Professor Shi Li from Beijing Normal University discussed details of an ongoing UBI pilot in Finland, suggesting possible pilot programs in China.

With the UBI attracting increased attention worldwide, several speakers considered the lessons of international pilot programs. Looking to the future, Professor Qin Gao from Columbia University reflected on the current issues of targeting the Dibao, China’s minimum livelihood guarantee policy, and the importance of local pilots, in addition to encouraging ongoing collaborative discussion between different groups.

Following the speeches, an engaging roundtable discussion was held, with participants evaluating the future prospects and challenges for UBI both in China and abroad. Participants concluded that the topic of UBI could be considered as a policy option and that more discussion and research is needed and possible small pilots should test the theory in practice.

With global inequality representing a fundamental challenge for sustainable development, UBI presents an innovative option to reduce myriad forms of inequality between citizens. Exploring new approaches to sustainable development is critical in the post-2015 era, where all UN Member States have signed up to the Sustainable Development Goals and committed to their implementation by 2030.

For more information on UNDP China’s work on UBI, and to read the working paper, please click here.

Prof Jianwen LIU, Professor, School of Law, Peking University; the Legislative Adviser for National People's Congress Standing Committee
Dr Peng GUO, Lecturer, China Institute of Industrial Relations
Balazs HORVATH, Director of UNDP Seoul Policy Centre
Prof Tuan YANG, Research Fellow, CASS
Prof Zhiyuan CUI, Professor of School of Public Policy and Management, Tsinghua University
Dr Yuan Zheng, UNDP China National Economist
Mr Patrick Haverman, UNDP China Deputy Country Director

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