China's Population: Issues and Trends in China's Demographic History


Since the United Nations began keeping records of national populations in the 1950, China has boasted the largest population of any country in the world. For current population by country, see the U.S. and World Population Clock at As of 2017, China had about 1.4 billion people, which is only slightly larger than India (1.3 billion), but well over 4 times more people than the next most populous country, the United States (326 million). See's World Factbook for current figures. In fact many Chinese provinces alone dwarf entire countries: for example Guangdong (110 million people), is larger than the Philippines (108 million people and the 13th largest country in the world by population); Sichuan (82.6 million) has about the same population as Germany (82.3 million) and Hubei (68.2 million) is more populous than the United Kingdom (65.6 million) (Ghosh 2018). (See for current figures.) In addition to the sheer magnitude of China’s population, the People’s Republic of China is interesting to study because Chinese policy makers have put a tremendous amount of effort into managing China’s population and trying to ensure steady economic growth for the nation and its citizens. Throughout its history, we see China thinking about the relationship between population size and economic development, the environment, and the quality of life for its citizens. Many of the policy steps China has made attempts to impact population growth, demographics and economic development.

History of China's Population Growth

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 the population began to increase rapidly. In the early years of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), China's population began dramatic changes that continue to the present.

Impact of the Introduction of New Crops from the Americas

The introduction of many crops from the ‘New World’ that had come to Asia from the Americas via the Spanish colonizers (including potatoes and corn) led to a rapid increase in population, beginning in the late 1500s-early 1600s, during the Ming dynasty. Then, during the subsequent Qing dynasty (1749-1911), China’s population doubled from 177,495,000 to 358,610,000. By 1851, the population reached approximately 431,896,000 before the effects of the massive and disastrous Taiping Rebellion that raged for more than a decade (1851-1864.) (Some 30,000,000 deaths occurred between 1851-1864, 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). [Source: Vaclav Smil, China's Environmental Crisis (1993)]

Population Pressure on Arable Land

Throughout the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, the increasing population put pressure on China's arable. 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.
    Chart of China's Population Growth Throughout HistoryChart of China's Population Growth Throughout History

    Source: Vaclav Smil, China's Environmental Crisis (1993)

  • 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. As the Chinese accepted “New World” crops, which, as noted, came 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 both a resource of great potential and a challenge of immense proportions.

Population Policies in the 20th century

During the late Qing dynasty and Republican Era (1912-1949), Chinese intellectuals and policymakers began to think more about the relationship between population and a modern productive economy (Dikotter 1995). This meant that the government should take a more active role in the health and education, the economic well-being and the overall quantity of its citizens.

After the communist revolution in 1949, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai both identified the need to control population growth as a key part of the Communist Party’s ability to realize its central economic plans. During the 1950s and 1960s, birth control and education were the primary tools for population control by the Chinese state (Greenhalgh & Winkler 2005).

Birth control, however, did not necessarily mean decreases in birth rates for Mao. In fact throughout the 1960s the birth rates increased in part because Mao saw China’s large population as a key component of China’s strength and the spread of Marxism.

As Mao’s influence began to diminish and with his eventual death, leaders such as Zhou Enlai, Li Xiuzhen and Deng Xiaoping began to build the modern scientific institutions for controlling China’s population (Greenhalgh 2008).They began with the “Later, Longer, Fewer” campaign, but eventually escalated their policies into the ‘One Child Policy.’ For Deng and his contemporaries, China’s population was not only a problem of quantity, but also one of quality. At the time most of the population was rural and uneducated and Deng sought to transform China’s population into one that was urban and highly skilled (Anagnost 1997). Deng Xiaoping worried that China’s massive population would consume the “fruits of economic growth” and leave the country lagging behind major nations.

Birth Control, Family Planning, and the One-Child Policy

Beginning in the 1970s the Communist Party launched an aggressive family planning program that included free birth control, education, contraceptives and increasing access to abortion and sterilization services (Wang 2012). While China saw a moderate decrease in the birth rate and increase in contraceptive usage, leaders worried that these measures were not enough.

In 1979 they implemented the controversial One Child Policy, restricting the number of children in a family. To achieve this policy aim, the government has used multiple methods, including financial penalties, restrictions to public services for second or third child, and in extreme cases compelling sterilizations and abortions (Short, Ma & Yu 2000).

At various stages the One Child Policy was met with opposition, particularly from rural families who tended to prefer more children. For this reason the One Child Policy has been revised throughout its history to make exceptions for rural families, ethnic minority groups and families without sons or with children who have severe chronic health problems (Zhang 2017). China’s heavy emphasis on family planning has had a profound impact on the lives of Chinese citizens with nearly 90% of people between the ages of 15-49 using some form of contraceptives (Zheng et al. 2012).

Declining Birth Rates and their Consequences

The One Child Policy and expansive family planning has arguably been more effective than Chinese leaders originally imagined. Since the 1970s, Chinese birth rates have dropped precipitously, from 5.8 births per woman in 1970, to 2.1 per woman in the 1980s, down to 1.5 births per woman as of 2015 (United Nations 2015). Since the 1990s China has had below replacement levels of births; reports from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences predict that as soon as 2027 China could actually see negative population growth (Myers, Wu & Fu 2019). In contrast to the government’s original fears, a shrinking population may present more problems for China than too much population growth.

Threats to Economic Growth

Many economists have argued that China’s large population has actually been its biggest economic strength. They have determined that China’s economic growth has relied heavily on productivity gains from moving a labor surplus from relatively unproductive agricultural work to highly productive industrial jobs (Zhang et. al 2010). The large population has kept China’s labor costs relatively low, which had incentivized international investment in factories. As more Chinese laborers, however, develop their skills, the cost of labor could lead companies to relocate factories to other countries where labor costs are lower. This creates the risk of subsequent economic recession (Krugman 2013). A declining population will exacerbate this trend as a decrease in the labor supply will raise wages.

China's Looming Crisis: A Shrinking Population - The New York Times

From: New York Times: China's Looming Crisis: A Shrinking Population. by Myers, Wu & Fu 2019.

China is already taking steps to dramatically shift its economy from a manufacturing intensive economic model towards a high skilled consumer driven model (Cox 2015, Ge & Yang 2010). A shrinking population, however, requires that China must make this transition more quickly in order to avoid these economic risks (Das & N’Diaye 2013).

Aging Population

Further complicating China’s economic landscape is a demographic transition towards a much older population. In 1982, there were about 49.28 million people over the age of 65 (or about 4.9% of the population). By 2000 the number had risen to 88.27 million (7.10% of the population) and by 2010 the number had reach 118.92 million (8.92% of the population) (PCO 2002, 2012). According to the Chinese Statistical Yearbook 2017, by 2016 the population of 65 and over was greater than 150 million making up a staggering 10.8% of the population (Zhou 2018). This trend is attributed to families having fewer children, while the average life expectancy is increasing (67.7 years in 1981 to 74.8 years in 2010). Many economists worry that an aging population will further decrease the Chinese labor supply as more adults retire and fewer people enter the work force. This could result in decreases in worker productivity and further drive up the costs of labor (Jiang 2018).

Furthermore, an aging population is likely to shift economic expenditures towards more costly medical consumption. The costs of medical expenditures in 2012 are roughly 4.42 times higher than they were in 2000, with the elderly spending about 2.56 times more than the national average. Further complicating the economic landscape is China’s insufficient pension and social security plan, which fail to cover many of the costs of the elderly in their retirement. According to 2010 data, regarding people aged 65 and older, only 25% of their income came from pensions, while 49% came from support from family members (Jiang 2016). The older and more rural a family member the more likely that the person relies on other family members and the less likely that the person can rely on work or retirement pensions. As the result of the “One Child Policy,” many working aged people are only children, and they often find themselves needing to be the main provider for their parents and grandparents, and possibly in-laws.

Sex Imbalance

Finally, it is worth noting that since China has taken a more active role in reducing its population, the balance between male and female births is more disprotionately male. In most countries the sex ratio at birth (SRB) is around 105 males to 100 females. However in China the gap between males and females has been growing since the 1980s with 110 males in 1987, 115 males in 1995 and peaking at 118 males in 2005 – in each case, to 100 females. Since then it has modestly decreased to around 111.9 males as of 2017 (Unicef 2018). Traditionally China’s Confucian values have prioritized sons over daughters, as sons inherit property, care for their parents in old age and further the family lineage, whereas daughters move to their husband’s families after marriage. Some demographers have worried that these Confucian family structures combined with the One Child Policy have led to this sex imbalance, documenting instances of female abandonment at adoption facilities, prenatal selection for boys instead of girls, and in extreme cases, infanticide (Aird 1990, Ebenstein 2010). However, others have pointed out that these ratios could result in a culmination of factors, including underreporting of female births in order to avoid coercive penalties and a more general a willingness to have a second child if the first is a girl among rural families, while preferring to only have one child if the first child is a boy (Goodkind 2015). Regardless of the reason, the gap between male and female populations has huge consequences, such as an increasing number of involuntary bachelors who are unable to find a wife (Wei & Zhang 2015). Some analysts worry that this dynamic could lead to social instability and further decreases in population. At the same time, some have argued that the relative scarcity of women has made them more powerful in marriage decision making (Poston & Glover 2005).

Male births per 100 female births

Source: Unicef, Sex ratio at birth, 1982-2017

Conclusion: State of Population and China c. 2020

In 2016 the Chinese government expanded its One Child Policy to allow two children per family, in response to worries about economic recessions, aging populations and sex imbalances (Buckley 2015); there remain, however, interesting questions about whether the government can effectively encourage a baby boom; or whether the One Child Policy and other family planning matters are really as influential as one might expect.

Total Fertility Rate and GDP per capita for China and Four Selected Countries (1960-2010)

Source: Zhang, 2017

Many scholars now point out that China’s decrease in family size is actually relatively analogous to similar developing countries (such as South Korea, India, Thailand and Mexico) that never implemented restrictive family planning policies (Zhang 2017).

As women are more highly educated and employed, families are living in more urban areas and the costs of raising children increases, families tend to choose to have less children, regardless of government policies. If this is the case, then China may not be able to rely on population growth as a potential solution, and may need to develop other policies to deal with their changing demographics.

Author and consultant

The author and consultant for this article is Andrew Wortham, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology and education at Columbia University Teachers College. The author taught for two years at a school in Yunnan province, Southwest China, and subsequently pursued research for his dissertation in Chengdu, Sichuan, China.

Questions for Discussion

  1. What fraction (or percent) of the world's population lives in China today?
  2. What percent of the world’s population lived in China during the middle of the Han dynasty (202 BCE to 220 CE) c. 2 CE?
  3. Had the size of China’s population changed between the Han dynasty and the Song dynasty, c. 1000 CE?
  4. How did changes in agriculture during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) affect China's population?
  5. Why did Chinese leaders in the 1950s-1990s worry about China’s population size?
    a. What steps did they take to manage it?
  6. What is China's "One Child Policy" and why was it implemented?
    a. What are some of the negative consequences of the policy?
    b. Do you think it was effective?
  7. How is China’s population related to its economic growth?
    a. What factors might encourage or diminish future growth?
  8. What are trends in China’s aging demographics?
    a. How might these trends impact the work force and family dynamics?
  9. What is the sex ratio at birth for China and how is it changing over time?
    a. What are some of the causes for this imbalance?
    b. What are some of the impacts for gender and the family in China?
  10. What are some ways that China might address some of the trends in their demographics?
  11. Do you think family planning is an important policy objective for a country as big as China?
  12. How might other types of policies (i.e. social security, education, health costs) improve population related issues?

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