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Population Power: China’s Shifting Masses


China’s enormous population is one of the country’s most defining features. With the largest population in the world, almost one-fifth of the global total, it factors into nearly every significant issue facing the country including employment, consumption, the environment, and migration. In the 1970s, faced with the prospect of its population outstripping its economic and agricultural output, Beijing reversed early Maoist policies encouraging population growth. It has since spent the last three and a half decades trying to bring this growth under control. China’s aggressive fertility education programs of the early 1970s, and its 1980 “one-child policy” succeeded in reducing births per woman from their peak of 5.8 at the beginning of the 1970s to below the replacement level of 2.1 today. A success of its population control policy has been its ability to feed its people, a key Chinese objective. Nevertheless, China’s large population still poses significant challenges. These challenges include a rising dependency ratio as the population ages, generating sustainable economic opportunity for its people, rapid urbanization, large internal migration and continued regional inequality.

Post-1949 Demographic Background

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By the 1800s, China had already been the most populous country in the world for the best part of two millennia. Yet high death rates caused by disease, crop failure, natural disasters, and war restrained China’s population growth between 1850 and 1950, with an average annual growth of 0.3% per year. When the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) consolidated its power over the country in 1949, peace and stability favored the country for the first time in decades. Early CCP policies led to improvements in nutrition, sanitation, and increased access to healthcare. Chinese mortality rates, especially those of infants, plummeted. Yet, the CCP failed to achieve enough per capita economic growth and educational reform to drive a natural reduction in the country’s birth rate as it developed. Moreover, Mao, and those on the far left, considered a large population to be a positive asset, both as an aid in economic development and a resource in national security. Mao believed that Malthusian theory – in essence the principle that exponential population growth would inevitably lead to an inability to feed the population – was a capitalist paradigm, and did not apply to Marxist production methods where more people inevitably created more economic output.

As a result, the majority of China’s population continued the tradition of seeking to have as many sons as possible. According to official statistics, China’s population almost doubled in less than thirty years, from just over 550 million in 1950, to just over 1 billion in 1982. Officials in China were well aware of China’s exploding population in the early decades after 1949. Yet, any talk of population control or family planning was labeled as defeatist and was quickly silenced during the many anti-rightist campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s.

By the end of the 1960s, concerns regarding China’s exploding population began to be more publically discussed. In 1970, Beijing decided to implement a voluntary birth control system. It spread information about the benefits of having fewer children, made contraceptives more widely available, and educated the public on family planning with slogans promoting later marriages, longer birth intervals, and fewer children. The program was largely successful. China’s total fertility rate, which measures the average number of births per woman, plummeted from 5.8 in 1970 to 2.7 in 1978. Nevertheless the 2.7 rate was still significantly higher than that in surrounding regions, including South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. A 1980 study, undertaken to estimate what China’s ideal population would be in 2080, assuming significant modernization and economic growth, concluded that the optimum population level would be between 650 and 700 million. China’s actual population in 1980 was already roughly one billion and still growing rapidly.

The ‘One-Child’ Policy

In September 1980, it was decided that China would implement what is often labeled as the ‘one-child policy’ (the Chinese name, jihua shengyu zhengce, translates better as ‘family planning policy’) with the goal of limiting its population to 1.2 billion by the turn of the century. Family planning was written into the constitution two years later. It is worth noting that the policy has not been blanketed uniformly across the country. Most ethnic minorities are permitted to have two children and many Han living in rural areas have been allowed to have a second child when the first child is a girl. Additionally, parents whose first child is disabled are allowed to have a second child and more recently it has been determined that parents who are both only-children themselves are now allowed to have two children.

The one-child policy was implemented relatively easily in the cities, where both spouses often worked and where living conditions were cramped. Resistance in the countryside was greater. The rural desire for larger families and many sons is deeply rooted, not least because more hands make easier agricultural work for all. In general, there has been a high correlation between income and the willingness to accept the one-child policy.

One result of the policy has reportedly been a series of forced sterilizations and abortions, an issue that the well-known activist Chen Guangcheng, who fled to the US in May 2012, was keen to expose. Additionally, couples defying the regulations were subject to fines, loss of jobs, reduced wages, loss of work unit benefits, or, in some cases, loss of bonuses for the entire workgroup. In some areas, wealthy families who worked in the private sector simply paid the fines imposed in order to have a second, or even a third, child. Those working in the public sector did not have this freedom as a second child would mean an inevitable loss of employment. The one-child policy also led to an imbalance in the sex ratio of the population. The preference for sons, particularly in rural areas, led to selective abortion and sometimes infanticide. An April 1983 article in the People’s Daily reported that a survey of Suixi and Hanyuan counties in Guangdong and Sichuan respectively, showed that male births outnumbered female births by as much as 5 to 1. The 2010 Chinese census showed 118 boys per 100 girls in the 0-4 age group. Overall, however, the ratio of men to women in the population has, according to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, peaked at 108 to 100 and is projected to fall steadily over the coming century. This discrepancy is partly explained by the underreporting of females at birth in order to circumvent the restrictions of the family planning laws. While allowing girls to go unregistered has allowed families to have more children, and to keep their girls while still striving to have a son, it has often put the unregistered girls at risk of losing access to many legal benefits, including education and other forms of social welfare. It is not clear exactly how many unregistered children have been born in China since the implementation of the family planning policies of 1980 but some estimates suggest that it could have exceeded 100 million.

Despite such aggressive family planning measures, China’s population reached 1.35 billion in 2011. Estimates on when China’s population will peak how big it will be at that point vary somewhat. China’s own figures suggests that this will happen in 2030 at 1.5 billion people, whereas the US Census Bureau has predicted that it will occur in 2026 at around 1.4 billion.

The Changing Structure of the Labor Force

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The current age structure of China’s population has provided China with an enormous competitive economic advantage. Specifically, China’s current population is both young and relatively free of dependents, whether they are children or elderly parents needing care. In 2011, approximately 72% of Chinese citizens were between the ages of 15 and 64. China’s current low dependency rate derives from the fact that Chinese ‘baby boomers’ born in the 1960s after the Great Leap Forward, and their children born in the 1980s, are now of working age. During the 1980s, China’s working age population increased 2.5% annually; this increase, coupled with high rural-to-urban migration, meant that the overall urban labor force has grown at about 4% per year since 1980.

The low dependency rate has created what has been termed China’s “demographic dividend”. The working age population has grown more rapidly than the population as a whole, a fact which has helped to drive rapid GDP growth. Low dependency rates have driven high savings rates, providing Chinese society with significant capital to invest; today’s workers save for old age, while today’s elderly spend savings accumulated earlier. China’s young, unencumbered population has also benefited China as it has been more adaptable to the rapid social and economic changes that have attended China’s transition to a market economy.

Yet, the growth of China’s labor force is now slowing as the last baby boom cohorts have been absorbed. After 2015, real working population growth is forecast to be zero. After 2015, future labor force increases will be driven by internal rural-urban migration. While easing some unemployment pressure, slower urban labor force growth will likely lead to lower overall GDP growth as well.

An Aging Population

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China will soon face a rapidly aging population. The number of Chinese over the age of 60 rose from 128 million to 178 million between 2000 and 2010 and is predicted to increase to 350 million by 2030, raising the senior dependency rate to 25%. Exacerbating the senior dependency rate is China’s mandatory retirement policy, which requires seniors to retire from work at the age of 60 in many sectors, though there is clear scope for adjustment to this policy should it be deemed necessary. China’s own figures suggest that its population over the age of 60 will peak in 2040 at around 400 million.

This rapidly aging population will place a great burden on the younger segments of society, as dictated both by Chinese culture and law, Chinese children are obliged to care for their retired parents. The strain of caring for the elderly will be worse in the countryside where the elderly are often not covered by the pensions that are more commonplace in urban areas, and where elders generally have had a lower overall income leading to lower, retirement savings. While most urban workers have some kind of pension, until the early 1990s China’s pension liabilities were unfunded, meaning that the pensions of currently retiring workers are supported by those currently working. Since the 1990s, the Chinese government has endeavored to establish a functioning and funded pension system. Its challenge will be to complete the work quickly so that the country does not grow old before it has the infrastructure in place to support its elderly. Consequently, although the one-child policy still remains in force, there have been calls from within China to address the challenge of its growing elderly by, among other policies, allowing couples to have more than one child. Indeed there has been some experimentation with the policy in some of China’s wealthier regions such as Guangdong.

Population and Food Security

One clear benefit of China’s one-child policy has been its continued ability to feed itself. In the 1970s, when population issues began to be discussed more openly, concerns regarding China’s growing population were borne out of classic Malthusianism – the theory that exponential growth would inevitably lead to an inability to feed the population. Balancing food and population has been the key economic issue facing China throughout its history. Historically, under normal agricultural conditions, farmers produced enough food to keep China’s population reasonably well-fed and productive, but the margin above subsistence was small. It took until the 1980s for agricultural output to sufficiently overtake China’s population so as to assure China’s food security. In the past, disasters such as floods and droughts often resulted in starvation.

Following the famine caused by the Great Leap Forward, the Chinese government determined that: “agriculture is the foundation of the economy; grain is the cornerstone of that foundation.” Beijing set itself a target of providing a minimum of 95% of its own grain requirements. China considers grain independence to be a matter of vital national security, and today, food independence remains a key Chinese objective. As recently as March 2011, Vice-Premier Hui Liangyu reiterated that China will maintain its goal of food self-reliance in order to both offset the risk of importing inflation due to rising global food prices and to reduce food dependency as a security risk.

Achieving 95% grain independence has not been easy for China. Despite having almost 20% of the world’s population, China’s geography is such that it is endowed with less than 10% of the world’s arable land. Moreover, as its population has grown, the amount of per capita cultivated land has continued to shrink. China has retained its food self-sufficiency through constant gains in agricultural productivity. Yet, many believe that it will be increasingly difficult for China to maintain such levels of agricultural gains in the future. Arable land will continue to decrease because of urbanization and environmental degradation. Additionally, China’s ability to increase harvests through the use of fertilizers and higher yielding grains is plateauing. There are further concerns over the availability of water.


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The rapid urbanization that has resulted from China’s industrialization has also posed significant challenges for the country. In the 1970s, urbanization was simply nonexistent. Beijing held tight control over any internal migration through its household registration system (hukou), and through the use of vouchers to acquire essentials such as food and clothing. Any movement was government allocated and almost exclusively from the city to the countryside as a way to reduce unemployment in the cities. This use of the countryside as an unemployment pressure valve exacerbated the pre-existing problem of redundant rural labor.

Today China’s urban population is rapidly rising. In 1978, only 17.92% of Chinese lived in cities. As of the 2010 census, 49.7% of Chinese were living in urban areas and it was reported that in January 2012 the total had reached 51%, making China a predominantly urbanized country for the first time in its history. Some of this urban growth has come as a result of reclassifying rural areas as urban areas, but most represents real changes in population patterns. By 2025, the number of Chinese city dwellers will rise to 926 million, up from 683 million in 2012, and may reach as high as one billion by 2030. Mind-boggling statistics accompany these figures. For example, over the next two decades, China is expected to construct as many as 50,000 new skyscrapers and to build mass transit systems in more than 170 cities.

Internal Migration and the Hukou System

One significant factor driving China’s urbanization is the large influx of migrant workers GuoZhongHua / Shutterstock.comthat come from the countryside. Internal migration is one of the most important phenomena in China’s demographics today. Figures from the 2010 census put temporary migrants – that is, those living more than one municipality away from their registered home for a period of more than six weeks – at almost 250 million, or nearly 19% of the overall population. These figures may be lower than the actual total as many migrants are thought to have avoided inclusion in the census. These temporary migrants are projected to grow to 400 million by 2025. Most migrants moved to the city either because of surplus labor problems in their hometowns, or in the hope of earning higher levels of income. This temporary urbanization has not exacerbated China’s urban unemployment as China’s economy has grown rapidly over the last several decades, and as migrant workers tend to take those jobs that urban residents are either unable or unwilling to do. Male migrants, for instance, dominate employment in sectors such as construction, while females work in cheap labor textile and other factories, where work is strenuous and often dull. Migrant employees are thought to send home an average of 50% of their income. More recently there have been reports of shortages of labor in some of the bigger cities, such as Shanghai, as opportunities open up closer to home for many migrants; the municipality of Chongqing recorded a higher number of returnees than those leaving in 2011 for the first time since the reform period began. Additionally, second generation migrant workers have begun to demand higher wages and better working conditions, reducing the benefit of employing them. Nevertheless, migrant workers remain a crucial aspect of China’s continued rapid development.

The overwhelming majority of migrant workers come from the poorer, western or interior provinces. 82% of these migrants head to just seven municipalities and provinces – Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Guangdong and Fujian. Approximately 64% of all migrants are males, aged between 16 and 30. Only 10% have been educated beyond middle school.

While tolerated by Beijing as a means of reducing rural unemployment, and as a way of providing cheap labor for urban factories and construction, migrants have not been given explicit permission by the government to be in the cities in which they work. There are many reports of discrimination against migrant workers both by their employers, who may seek to exploit the vulnerability of these workers through non- or late payment of wages, and by the state, which denies welfare benefits to those not resident in their registered municipalities. Without official residence papers, migrants have poor access to housing, health facilities, and education for their children. It is not uncommon for migrants to work long hours in poor safety conditions for little pay. It is estimated that the majority of the 700,000 annual, serious, work-related injuries, claiming 130,000 lives, are incurred by migrant workers.

As migrant workers become a more permanent fixture of urban landscapes, there has been an effort to relax the hukou system in order to provide this population with greater rights. In 1997, for example, the State Council created a pilot scheme to allow certain migrant workers to transfer their registration to 450 selected towns and cities. To qualify, migrants needed to demonstrate a stable source of income, residence of over two years in the chosen city, employment in either secondary or tertiary industries, and that they own their own apartment. These requirements have made it impossible for the vast majority of migrants to qualify. In 2001, the State Council expanded the program to include all small towns and cities. Yet, as the value of the property was not specified, many city governments restricted large inflows of unskilled workers into their cities by requiring apartments to be of a value that often exceeded the means of the average migrant worker. This meant that, in effect, the government pilot scheme acted more as a means to attract talent and investment rather than a policy to promote the rights of those involved in internal migration throughout the country. More recently there has been increasing pressure to reform the hukou system, with 12 newspapers publishing a joint editorial calling for it to be modified in March 2012. To date, these calls have not resulted in any significant actions though the rhetoric from the government suggests that this may change in the future.

Future Trends

In the future, China’s large population will continue to provide the country with enormous challenges. As its population continues to age, China will be challenged by slower GDP growth and the need to create pension and healthcare systems that will help relieve the burden of the young to care for the old. This will be especially true as the changing global economy will look to China to generate more of its growth through domestic demand as opposed to through exports. Additionally, China’s growing population, which is predicted to peak by 2030 at approximately 1.5 billion people, will continue to put enormous demands on its scarce natural resources. Water management, in particular, will be a huge future challenge.

Employment will also remain a key concern for the Chinese government. Employment will remain a particularly acute problem in China’s western provinces. Provinces in which many of the ‘Made in China’ goods are produced, such as Guangdong, Zhejiang, and Jiangsu, enjoy unemployment rates as low as 4%. In other regions of China, especially in the west, unemployment figures are higher and seem set to remain so. China has developed its ‘Go West’ policy, encouraging surplus labor from the east to move into the more sparsely populated regions of the west. Yet, in areas such as Tibet and Xinjiang, this western migration of predominantly Han Chinese has contributed to increased ethnic tensions.

The challenges of China’s rapid urbanization are significant. Rapid economic growth will be necessary not only to the finance the enormous cost of this level of urbanization, but also to ensure that when centralized, urban populations do not protest government policy, as they did in Tiananmen Square in 1989. This could be a particular risk if long term migrant workers continue to be denied the same basic rights as registered urban residents, particularly as those urban residents will become an increasingly smaller percentage of the total urban population. Favoring the original urbanites with government services risks disadvantaging a large section of the population and creating a two-tiered system. Migrants relocating into China’s growing cities have no medical care coverage as they lack a residential permit. The government has recently tried to respond to this challenge by creating the Urban Employee Basic Medical Insurance System (UBEMIS) to include the non-state owned sector and self-employed workers. In 2005, UBEMIS was estimated to cover more than 129 million people.

Additionally, urban residents use, on average, 3.6 times as much energy as rural residents, creating greater demands on energy grids. Urbanization can also lead to greater motorization, taxing China’s new road infrastructure. Land available for agricultural use will decrease, testing China’s ability to be food independent. Greater urbanization will also generate higher levels of pollution, further exacerbating China’s already polluted air. Though China has demonstrated that it understands many of the challenges that its population will pose, it does not yet have all of the answers to them.