Trends and developments of Chinese demography in 2013

By Zhai Zhenwu / 01-24-2014 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

China will start to implement the two-child policy for the couples where either the husband or wife is from a single-child family.

The year 2013 was a pivotal year for the “Twelfth Five-year Plan”, representing both continuity with past discussions and a connection to the future, as well as the first year during which China worked to fulfill the spirit and vision of the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC).

This past year, the field of demography was dominated by studies on the current situation and trends in Chinese population based on figures from the Sixth National Population Census of the People's Republic of China (completed November 2010). Additionally, looming problems posed by China’s aging population, unbalanced gender ratio and floating population drew a copious amount of scholarly attention. Compared with previous years, 2013 marks a particularly profound and active year for demography studies in China.

Precise statistics are the basis for understanding demographic trends

Precise statistics from population surveys, especially census data, form an important base for analyzing the current situation of and unfolding trends in the Chinese population. Therefore, rigorous evaluation of the Sixth Nationwide Population cencus and re-estimation of important population indexes will play a significant role in understanding the population situation of China.

Compared with the Fifth National Population Census (completed in 2000), the Sixth Census had a substantially lower mis-registration rate and a clear improvement quality. However, respondents misreporting their ages and the underreporting of mortalities in younger cohorts were serious problems. Achieving an accurate understanding of China’s fertility situation therefore requires reevaluating and correcting the census data.

Because most fertility rate indexes are calculated using the number of births and number of women of childbearing age, some scholars have estimated China’s fertility rate in 2010 to be above 1.52 when accounting for underreported births and women misreporting their age (as being in childbearing years when they are actually not). Using multiple data sources and a variety of methods produces an even larger number, suggesting China’s fertility level since 2000 has been at least 1.6. Demographers have long been focused on how to calculate China’s actual fertility rate, a crucial piece of information for adjusting China’s fertility policy.

Having an accurate grasp of the scale, structure and flow of China’s floating population is vital for population management and policy-making aimed at promoting the sustainable development of regional economies. Statistics of the sixth cencus show that China’s floating population is expanding, and its distribution pattern is becoming more centralized. China’s urban population is still mostly concentrated in coastal areas, but is showing a south-to-north and east-to-middle trend, while the reasons for migration are more diverse and increasingly influenced by social factors. Further analyzing the relationship between population distribution and economic development, we can draw the following conclusions: there is strong correlation between the immigrant population, employment levels, and total economic output; industrial agglomeration is more prevalent in regions with a greater number of inter-provincial floating populations .

Data from the sixth survey also shows evidence of uneven gender ratio at birth becoming more widespread, with the number of provinces, regions and cities with severe and extremely high uneven ratios increasing. Statistics on China’s elderly population and mortality indicate an upward trend in the proportion of elderly who are able to take care of themselves for the entirety of their life expectancy as a portion of China’s total elderly population; this ratio is increasingly faster in rural areas than urban areas. Across regions, genders and age groups, there is an evident discrepancy in the strength of the correlation between income and life expectancy.

Improving the fertility policy will promote balanced long-term population development

The Decision of the CPC Central Committee on Several Important Issues of Comprehensively Deepening Reform explicitly states: “China will adhere to the basic national policy of family planning, start to implement the two-child policy for the couples where either the husband or wife is from a single child family, (and) gradually adjust and improve the current fertility policy so as to promote long-term balanced population development.” A very timely decision, this adjustment of the fertility policy is based on substantial in-depth research.

Not changing the fertility policy would hasten the aging of China’s population, resulting in the expedited depletion of its labor force. Additionally, it might threaten to further exacerbate the uneven gender ratio at birth. A simulation the potential changes in China’s demographic trends in the coming years reveals that moderately easing the fertility policy will considerably help mitigate the issues posed by an aging population in the 21st century, in particular alleviating the social burden of caring for the elderly. Therefore, the adjustment must be made before the fertility rate loses its elasticity.

Responding to the challenges of aging and maintaining economic dynamism

The gradual aging of China’s population and the issues it poses have become a topic of universal concern across every sector of society. Today, the research on this topic has largely fallen into two categories: more theory-oriented research on the indicators used for studying the aging population, and more applied research on the impact of population aging on China’s social and economic development.

As the aging of China’s population becomes more prominent, the overall health of China’s population is also improving with socioeconomic development and improvements in medical treatment and public health. Seniors can still contribute actively to China’s social development. Some scholars have proposed defining the category of “elderly” based on expected remaining years rather as including everyone past a certain age. Using this definition, called the "forward looking age" by its proponents, to calculate the evolution of China's elderly population from 2000 to 2050 shows a much lower dependency ratio and proportion of elderly to the total population than traditional population indexes.

Studies on the relationship between population aging and socioeconomic development have indicated that because of its effect on the savings rate, labor supply and labor productivity, the aging population plays an indirect role in curtailing consumer demand. At the same time, some research comparing data from a variety of provinces, regions and cities has concluded that population aging in China does not impede economic growth, nor is there any apparent correlation between aging and regional economic development.  

Scholars studying the provision of state pensions have observed that funding for pensions in Western Chinese provinces remains gravely deficient. The construction of a service-oriented government and improvement of the pension system and other public services will be therefore a priority for Chinese demography in the future.

Zhai Zhenwu is from the School of Sociology and Population Studies at Renmin University of China.

The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 542, November 27, 2013

                                                                                                                                Translated by Bai Le
                                                                                                                                        Revised by Charles Horne