and Trends in China's Population (Throughout History and Today)
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.
of China's Population Growth Throughout History
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
- 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
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.
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
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
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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