Issues and Trends in China's Demographic History

Aspects of Size

Magnitude and Growth

As the world's population surpassed 6 billion (6,000,000,000) in October 1999, China's population represented more than 1/5 of this total (20.8%) — one out of every five people in the world lives in China. Today, China's population exceeds 1.25 billion (1,250,000,000), a number that continues to increase minute-by-minute on Beijing's official Ticking Population Clock:

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China's population increases each year by approximately 12-13 million people, a number that exceeds the total population of individual countries such as Belgium, Greece, Cambodia, or Ecuador. Annual population growth in China actually exceeds the current population of Ohio, Illinois, or Pennsylvania.

Some Chinese Provinces are Larger than Major Countries

The difficulty of governing China's population as well as managing its economic and social development is underscored if one appreciates the population of many of China's provinces and compares them to nations elsewhere in the world.

Some Chinese Provinces and Their Populations Some Major Countries and Their Populations
Sichuan (including Chongqing), 107 million Nigeria, 96 million
  Mexico, 92 million
Henan, 85 million  
Shandong, 84 million

Germany, 81 million

Jiangsu, 67 million Philippines, 67 million
Hebei, 61 million Iran, 63 million
Hunan, 61 million  
Anhui, 56 million Egypt, 58 million
Hubei, 54 million Italy, 58 million
  United Kingdom, 58 million
  France, 57.3 million


Issues and Trends in China's Population (Throughout History and Today)

China's population is at once its greatest asset as well as its most significant challenge. This is as true today as the twenty-first century begins as it has been for much of China's history. Although there are not absolutely reliable historical census numbers for China, certain patterns emerge as one examines China's imperial demographic path from 60 million people two thousand years ago to passing the one billion mark in recent times.

Chart of China's Population Growth Throughout History
Chart of China's Population Growth Throughout History
Source: Vaclav Smil, China's Environmental Crisis (1993)

China's Population Growth Throughout History

As early as 2 C.E. during the Han dynasty, China had a population of some 60 million — approximately one-fourth of the world's population at that time. Historical fluctuations of growth and decline kept dynastic China's population between 37 and 60 million over a period of at least the next 1000 years before beginning to increase rapidly. In the early years of the Ming dynasty in the late fourteenth century, China's population began dramatic changes that continue to the present. Rapid increases occurred especially between 1749 and 1811 during the Qing dynasty when the country's population doubled from 177,495,000 to 358,610,000. By 1851, the population reached perhaps 431,896,000 before the effects of the disastrous Taiping Rebellion brought about a slowing of past growth patterns (Some 30,000,000 deaths occurred between 1851-1864 during the upheavals associated with the attempt to establish the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom. In some areas of central China, the effects of this were not reversed until the mid-twentieth century).

Throughout the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, increasing population pressure on China's arable land was an on-going problem. Remarkable changes in agriculture in China over this four century period attest to extraordinary successes in increasing grain production to feed the burgeoning population.

  • Migration from old areas into frontier areas helped broaden agriculture and spread population beyond already densely populated areas.
  • The introduction of higher-yielding rice seeds and earlier ripening varieties of rice increased productivity from existing intensively tilled fields.
  • Of great significance during this period was the introduction of new crops into Chinese cropping patterns. Especially noteworthy was the acceptance of a range of New World crops that had come to Asia from the Americas via the Spanish colonizers. These new crops — corn, sweet potatoes, and peanuts, especially — were all non-competitive with common grain crops because they could be grown in marginal areas such as on hill slopes and where soils were dry or sandy.
  • Increased ability to produce food was aided also by continuing attention to improving irrigation, creating level land via terracing, grain storage, and improvements in tools and organic fertilizers.

The doubling and redoubling of China's population occurred well before China began its industrial revolution. In spite of China's apparent success in keeping pace with population increases, these efforts however could not be sustained. Indeed, by the nineteenth century, the pressure of population numbers taxed the ability of the weakened Qing imperial system to deal with it.

Between 1851 and 1949, a century of rebellion, social upheaval, and suffering, China's population base increased "only" by another 100,000,000 on top of its 432,000,000 base. (During the same period, the population of the United States increased from about 23,000,000 to 151,000,000. Of this 128 million increase in the US, 36 million was due to immigration.) While China's absolute increase over this century was far below the increases of the preceding several centuries, the magnitude of China's overall population nonetheless bequeathed to the newly established People's Republic of China a resource of great potential and challenge of immense proportions.

Population Policy in the People's Republic of China (PRC): 1949 to the Present

China's first modern census in 1953 revealed a population of 583,000,000, a number that has more than doubled in less than 50 years to 1,252,800,000 people in 1999. One way to emphasize the magnitude of this recent surge is to realize that China's population increased between 1953 and the present by more than 670,000,000, a number that nearly exceeds the combined current total population of Europe (579,700,000).

How population issues have been addressed since 1949 have been important components of China's economic, social, and political development during the last half of this century. In spite of the enormous absolute increase in the country's population that occurred — especially during the first three decades after 1949 — it is also clear that China has simultaneously been successful over the past twenty years in managing its population growth. Between 1953 and 1964, barely ten years, the country's population swelled by an additional 112,000,000 as death rates fell and birth rates remained high. Moreover, during the Great Leap Forward between 1958 and 1961, China experienced a tragic famine that led to as many as 20,000,000 deaths due to a breakdown in agricultural production and resulting food shortages. During this period, some spoke up for a population policy based upon an assessment of the country's need but the full state backing for a family planning program was yet to unfold.

One-Child Policy

Throughout the 1970s there was increasing evidence of inexorable increases that propelled population planners and politicians to attempt to bring about a drastic reduction of family size and slow increases. What emerged was the one child policy, a policy that has been both successful in statistical terms and controversial in terms of its implementation. The implementation of the policy was especially harsh in the early 1980s, notorious because of forced abortions, infanticide, and strict penalties. While the one child policy is widely carried out in China's cities, it has been more flexibly enforced in rural areas and in those portions of the country heavily populated by ethnic minority groups. Throughout the rural areas two and three children per couple are common; here also there is increased awareness of the need for population planning and a general willingness to have fewer children than was common in China in the past. Contraception is widely practiced throughout China in order to reduce pregnancies and widen the spacing between births. In many cases the so-called one-child policy can be best stated today as "One is best, two at most, but never a third."

Population Growth in China Today

Both the crude birth rate and the crude death rate declined significantly between 1949 and 1997, except for the early years of the 1960s. The success of China's population planning program is heralded by some because of the fact that as many as 200 million fewer Chinese were born as the program was implemented and gained popularity. Employing exhortation, incentives, and punishments, China's birth rate eventually declined to 1.03 percent in 1995, an extraordinarily low rate for a developing country. Still, because of the absolute size of the country's total population, there is a net increase of about one million each month, an annual gain of over 12,000,000 that equals the total population of New York City.

China's population is likely to reach 1.3 billion by 2000. As a result, there will be a need for some 450 million metric tons of grain while domestic production will only reach 420 million tons. The shortfall will be made up from imports.

Chinese policymakers have increasingly attempted to let the world know of the validity of China's official position in the face of widespread criticism of China's policies. The National Population and Family Planning Commission of China in fact maintains an English-language web site that spells out family planning objectives, policies, problems, and achievements. China's huge population imposes substantial stress on the country's natural resources, including arable land, and the magnitude of absolute increases each year presents daunting challenges.

Over the decades China's population has not only grown, it has changed in terms of its distribution and characteristics.

  • Youthful population. 319,244,000 (26% of total population) are below the age of 14, compared to 58,196,000 (20% of total population) in the United States.
  • Aging population. 120,000,000 (10% of total) are over 60 years of age, as compared to 54,794,000 (21% of total) in the United States. China has 20% (1 in 5) of all people alive who are above 60 years of age.
  • Increased life expectancy. 1998: Women 71 and Men 68 as compared to 1950 when the figures were 42 and 39 respectively.
  • Large Urban Population. China has the largest urban population of any country in the world even though most Chinese live in rural areas. More than 311,000,000 Chinese live in cities compared to 194,700,000 in the United States. 26% of China's population is urban while 75% of the population of the United States is urban. Since 1952, there has been a steady increase in the percentage of Chinese living in urban areas.

As population has doubled over the past 50 years, China's agriculture, energy supplies, urban infrastructure, education, and housing all have come under increasing stress. Chronic air and water pollution problems are now evident in rural and urban areas throughout the country. All of these are issues that the Chinese government must struggle with in order improve the lives of its people.

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Questions for Discussion

Aspects of Size

  1. What fraction (or percent) of the world's population is China's?
  2. How does China's yearly population increase compare with the total population of some individual countries?

Issues and Trends

  1. Did China's population grow overall during the first millennium C.E.? How did China's population compare with that of other areas of the world ca. 1000 C.E.?
  2. How did changes in agriculture during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) affect China's population?
  3. How did China's population change between 1953 to 1999?
  4. What is China's "one child policy" and why was it implemented? What are the problems with this policy? What are the benefits?
  5. What are some of the changes in China's population that have taken place in the last decades in terms of youthful population, aging population, life expectancy, and urban population?
  6. What are some of the issues the Chinese government must struggle with as China's population increases?

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© 2009 Asia for Educators, Columbia University |