Rarely has a census report received as much attention as the one China released in May. Given Beijing’s long history of fiddling with demographic data, the one-month delay in releasing last year’s census results was suspicious, to say the least, but it was what happened soon thereafter that effectively confirmed China’s bleak demographic reality.
Officially, China’s demographic situation is nothing to be alarmed about: The census showed that the population reached the expected level of 1.41 billion people last year, and continues to grow.
However, less than a month after the census was released, Chinese authorities announced the loosening of family-planning rules, so that households can have three children, rather than two. They have also put forward a more comprehensive plan for boosting the fertility rate.
Illustration: Mountain People
These policy moves suggest that China’s demographic structure is actually much worse than the authorities would have us believe. Indeed, an analysis of the nation’s age structure suggests that it has far fewer citizens than the census reported and that its population is already declining.
Past censuses indicate that China’s fertility rate began to fall below replacement level (generally about 2.1 children per woman) in 1991 — 11 years after the one-child policy was implemented nationwide. In 2000 and 2010, China’s fertility rate amounted to only 1.22 and 1.18 respectively, but the figures were adjusted to 1.8 and 1.63.
Those revisions were made on the basis of primary-school enrollment data, but such data are far from reliable. Local authorities often report more students than they have — 20 to 50 percent more, in many cases — to secure more education subsidies.
For example, according to a China Central Television report, Jieshou City in Anhui Province reported having 51,586 primary-school students in 2012, when the actual number was only 36,234; it duly extracted an additional 10.63 million yuan (US$1.64 million) in state funding.
So, from 2004 to 2009, China supposedly had 104 million first-graders. This was consistent with the 105 million births China’s National Bureau of Statistics announced in 1998 to 2003. Yet there were only 84 million people aged seven to 12 registered in the mandatory hukou (戶口, household registration) system in 2010, and only 86 million ninth-graders registered in 2012 to 2017.
When the 2000 and 2010 censuses showed a much smaller population than expected, the authorities inflated the numbers. For example, in 2010, Fujian Province was found to have a population of 33.29 million, yet the figure was revised to upward of 36.89 million.
However, these headline changes could not obscure the flaws in the breakdown figures. Judging by the number of newborns to nine years old in the 2000 census, one could infer that as many as 39 million fewer babies were born in 1991 to 2000 than had been recorded in the revised data. Accordingly, the actual population in 2000 might have been closer to 1.227 billion than to the 1.266 billion that was officially reported.
Last year’s census is similarly misleading. The statistics bureau claims that 227 million babies were born in 2006 to 2019, and the census report shows that there were 241 million Chinese aged one to 14 last year. However, that would mean that China’s average fertility rate in 2006 to 2019 amounted to 1.7 to 1.8.
Given that the government was enforcing strict population-control policies during that period — the two-child policy was introduced on Jan. 1, 2016 — this seems highly unlikely.
Yes, China’s ethnic minorities were exempted from its one-child policy, so there was no need to hide their births. Yet their fertility rate was only 1.66 in 2000 and 1.47 in 2010. Given that Han Chinese tend to be wealthier and more educated, their fertility rate would be lower even if they were not subjected to stricter family-planning rules.
The truth is that China’s population last year was probably about 1.28 billion — about 130 million fewer people than reported. That would make India, not China, the world’s most populous country.
Of course, China’s latest census was always going to be in line with past releases. Officials from the statistics bureau and the former family-planning commission are still responsible for executing the census, and they would be held to account if the data are inconsistent. However, given the importance of demographics to China’s future prosperity, these distortions do the country a serious disservice.
To be sure, a declining fertility rate is an expected upshot of development, especially for improvements in health and education. Taiwan, for example, recorded a fertility rate of just 1.55 in 1991 to 2006, and 1.09 in 2006 to last year. However, Taiwan is about 15 years ahead of China in terms of health and education, and Chinese already show less willingness to have children than their counterparts in Taiwan.
Something else is going on in China, and it is not hard to discern what it is. After facing a strict one-child policy for 36 years, and a two-child policy after that, Chinese’s ideas about marriage and childbirth have changed profoundly. (The divorce rate in China is 1.5 times that of Taiwan.)
Yet China’s top leaders have not fully grasped the demographic challenges they face. True, they are taking steps to boost the fertility rate, but they also seem convinced by the state economists’ predictions — based on (distorted) official data — that China’s GDP would keep growing until it dwarfs that of the US. It is this belief in China’s inexorable rise that has spurred them to pursue strategic expansion.
The West, too, is buying into this narrative. In underestimating China’s demographic challenges, Western leaders are overestimating its economic and geopolitical prospects. They see a fire-breathing dragon when what stands before them is really a sick lizard. This raises the risk of strategic miscalculation on both sides.
By about 2035, China would be doing worse than the US on all demographic metrics, and in terms of economic growth. Its GDP is unlikely to surpass that of the US. China’s leaders must recognize this — and take a strategic step back.
Yi Fuxian, a senior scientist in obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is the author of Big Country with an Empty Nest.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
The global chip shortage last year caused an unprecedented supply-chain crisis, affecting many key industries, including the auto industry. Europe, Japan and the US began to realize the indispensability and ubiquitous dominance of Taiwan’s semiconductor manufacturing industry. At the same time, amid the US-China trade war, Beijing’s military aggressions against Taiwan became increasingly blatant and provocative. In light of these developments, Europe, Japan and the US are formulating new policies to rebuild their domestic semiconductor manufacturing base, so as to mitigate the enormous geopolitical and economic risks involved. Last year, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC) commanded 56 percent of the global
When I was teaching in Lesotho in southern Africa during the 1980s, I taught a class on comparative foreign policy. The course included trips to the US embassy, the Soviet embassy, the British embassy and the newly established Chinese embassy. The students could ask the ambassadors and staff questions about foreign policy, and would then write a report as their final term paper. The Chinese ambassador felt that the US-style education I delivered was unique and invited me to go to China to teach. At the time, China was planning to open up to the world, and it needed professors versed
Anniversaries can serve multiple functions. For example when Taiwan commemorates the 228 Incident, there is a combined feeling of sadness over the sufferings following the events in 1947, joined with the resolve that such a tragedy should never be allowed to happen again. This year, when Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) attended the 25th anniversary of the UK’s 1997 handover of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), a different and strange mood prevailed. Even stranger yet was Xi’s explanatory narrative. Those who had attended the historic event in 1997 could recall how festive it had been. Media were
As the geopolitical effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine become more obvious, the collective defense provided by NATO is the key security umbrella that unites European countries and protects them from further intrusion by their malicious eastern neighbor. With Finland and Sweden having been invited to join NATO — which, if they join, would increase the number of member states from 30 to 32 — two more nations in the region are in line to be included in the regional security pact. Meanwhile, the support that Russia has been receiving behind the scenes from China and other countries is one of the