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Chinese population studies keep abreast of demographic shifts

LU JIEHUA and LIU QIN | 2019-01-03 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Students aged 68 years old on average take a fashion modeling course at a college for seniors in Wuhan, Hubei Province. Photo: CHINA DAILY


Since the start of the 21st century, major shifts have taken place in China’s population development. Previously, the pressure from the enormous population size was the issue, but now structural challenges loom large. To promote the long-term balanced development of the population, it is vital to effectively cope with demographic changes and their profound impacts on socioeconomic development and to timely grasp new trends and characteristics in population studies in the new era. Declining fertility, aging, diminishing demographic dividends and progressing urbanization have become major topics for Chinese demographers.


Significant demographic shifts
With the successive implementation of the universal two-child policy, strategies to cope with aging, and national planning, China’s population development has entered a new era. This era can be characterized by the following four changes.

First, the fertility rate keeps falling. Since the family planning policy was implemented, fertility has been on the decline. In 2015, the total fertility rate stood at only 1.05, an extremely low level. Despite the universal two-child policy, fertility has been dropping. The year 2017 witnessed 17.23 million births, a decrease of 630,000 from 2016.

Second, the pace of aging is picking up. In 2000, China officially entered an aging society. In 2016, the population aged 60 and above was larger than the number of children for the first time in the demographic history of the country. It is forecast that aging will slow down after a period of acceleration. The population aged 60 and above will peak at 482 million in 2053.

Third, demographic dividends show a downward trend. The proportion of the working population has been dropping after peaking during the 12th Five-Year Period. In 2017, the working population was smaller than 1 billion for the first time, accounting for 71.8 percent of the total. Meanwhile, the aging of working people has also accelerated. The older workforce aged between 45 and 59 is expected to account for approximately 36 percent by 2030.

Fourth, the rate of urbanization is rising. It is estimated that roughly 200 million people will cumulatively migrate from rural to urban areas between 2016 and 2030. Though the momentum of migration is weakening, people will continue to aggregate in regions along the river, the sea and railways with the advancement of urbanization. Population aggregation in city clusters will be prominent.

Core research topics
Against the macro backdrop of demographic shifts, research subjects that have long been of core concern such as demographic dividends, aging, fertility and new models for urbanization are changing.

Human capital is an important base for sustainable socioeconomic development. As the laboring population shrinks, demographic dividends brought by the large labor force are disappearing. During this period, studies of demographic dividends are mainly concerned with how to boost fertility, develop labor resources and cope with aging.

Scholars first suggested encouraging childbirth by allowing all couples to have two children, thereby reserving a potential labor force for future economic development. Second, it is essential to fully tap the potential of dividends from the current population, enhance innovative capacities and optimize the knowledge structure of the working-age population.

Meanwhile, industrial transformation is advised to turn labor-intensive industries into capital- and technology-intensive ones. Last, active efforts should be made to tackle aging, such as reforming the retirement policy and reallocating the human capital of the aging population, in a bid to embrace the second round of demographic dividends.

Research on aging started from the exploration of related practices and theories and the defining of pertinent concepts. After entering the aging society in the 21st century, the major features and impact mechanisms of the Chinese aging society have become targets for in-depth and systematic analysis. Currently, demographers are focusing on cross-disciplinary studies, top-level design of the aging society and localized retirement patterns. Interdisciplinary research is the necessary direction for developing research on aging, because an all-around and objective examination of the phenomenon and process of aging entails comprehensive studies.

At present, cross-disciplinary research concentrates on the health of the aged, aging economics, and the construction of an environment suited to the population. Furthermore, China’s population aging is particular and grim, which calls for strengthened national top-level design, with research focusing on models, content and effects. In addition, investigations into the elderly service industry and new retirement patterns like smart elderly care and the integration of medical and pension resources are being extended and enriched.

The low fertility rate has become one of the bottlenecks restraining China’s population development, and it is likely to continue for a long time. It has been nearly three years since the universal two-child policy was introduced in 2016. Relevant research is not as heated as before, and the focuses have shifted from childbearing desire surveys and the influence of the policy on China’s fertility level to how to raise the fertility rate in the context of the universal two-child policy.

After the policy was released, the births of second children are apparently fewer than the expected number, so demographers are probing into measures to boost fertility, including drawing upon global pro-natalist policies, improving supporting mechanisms and building an institutional environment friendly to childbearing.

In March 2014, the CPC Central Committee and the State Council issued the National Plan on New Urbanization (2014–2020). The plan made it clear that the directions of the new model of urbanization include converting the rural population into urban residents in an orderly manner, ameliorating the spatial layout, strengthening cities’ sustainable development abilities, and advancing the integrated development of rural and urban areas.

Demographic studies have centered on the requirements raised by the plan and researched the following key areas. The first area consists of the deeper problems facing the new model of urbanization, such as the sustainable development of small towns, the legislative guarantee of farmland, the reasonable allocation of public resources and the protection of traditional culture.

Second, since related policies have been urged to facilitate qualified rural migrants to work and settle in cities, scholars have paid greater attention to how to resettle rural migrant workers in cities and towns, including examining the desire for migration, cost mechanisms and difficulties in practice.

The third research focus is on the quality of the new model of urbanization. The quality and speed of urbanization in China are not balanced and coordinated, particularly in megacities and big cities. Demographers have mainly studied the level of urbanization, quality evaluation models and approaches to enhance quality. In addition, the integrated development of rural and urban areas and the social integration of the migrant population have been covered in demographic research.

Generally, population studies in China have been forward-looking and practical, keeping abreast with hot social issues and centering on policy. Based on the above-mentioned topics, future research should focus on the following aspects.

Attention should be paid to industrial transformation in the economic situation featuring “new technology, new business and new models.” It should also be paid to the improvement of the quality of the working-age population, the development of “grey industries” in the context of an aging population, and the unleashing of the second round of demographic dividends.

Moreover, scholars focusing on aging should devote more efforts to cross-disciplinary exploration, while experts specializing in fertility should keep a watchful eye on the timeline of planned childbearing. In terms of urbanization, it is necessary to increase studies on the urbanization of the aging population, which lags behind rapid urbanization and aging.

All in all, future demographic studies should continue attending to the new forms, characteristics and influences of population-related problems arising in the course of socioeconomic development, thereby contributing feasible solutions to the major problems facing China’s medium- and long-term social and economic advancement and promoting the balanced development of the population. 

Lu Jiehua and Liu Qin are from the Department of Sociology at Peking University.

​(edited by CHEN MIRONG)