Working Paper
Vulnerability, Trust and Microcredit

The Case of China’s Rural Poor

This paper investigates the economic conditions of rural households in China. Historical survey data indicate that over 80 per cent of rural households earn less than 4,500 yuan in net disposable income each year, that for the vast majority of rural households disposable income is insufficient to meet food consumption needs, and that in terms of economic growth rural households are receiving an ever decreasing percentage of China’s growing economy with rural household incomes being only 31 per cent of urban household income in 2004. To reduce vulnerability and food insecurity, this paper investigates the role of microcredit in China. It is argued that in China the conventional wisdom is to provide credit using traditional means, but we provide a model that shows how a microcredit market based on trust can co-exist with a commercial collateral-based market. This model is developed in detail and certain propositions are supported using dominant strategies in a trust-honour game based on the prisoner’s dilemma. The theoretical model is then applied to the case of microlending in China. It explains why, in the absence of trust, rural credit corporations do not make loans to the very poor. Furthermore, the model explains how Central party policies on rural credit can actually crowd out micro finance institution (MFI) and NGO microlending in China, and also explains why moneylenders dominate in many of the poorer regions of the country. From a policy point of view, the theoretical model indicates that trust-based lending, coupled with certain incentives, can go far in supporting growth opportunities in rural China. It is argued that Chinese policy should be flexible enough to permit trust-based microlending to the poor, regardless of how counterintuitive this must appear to the conventional wisdom. Indeed, in the absence of flexible credit strategies, China’s rural poor will remain in a persistent food-insecure poverty gap.