China in Transition

The Bright and Dark Sides of China's Huge Population

Chi Hung KWAN
Consulting Fellow, RIETI

(Published on the May 24, 2011 edition of the Allatanys Newspaper Guide)

The results of the Sixth National Population Census of China were released on April 28, 2011. When compared with the previous census conducted ten years ago, this set of data shows the demographic changes in China in such areas as age composition, level of education, and migration. Coupled with GDP data at the provincial level, it has also become possible to measure the latest degree of income disparity between regions.

Basic characteristics of the Chinese population

In 2010, the population in China (excluding Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan) reached 1,339.72 million people, accounting for about 20% of the world's population. This number is hailed as "potential" on some occasions and seen as a "threat" on others. With the birthrate falling since the introduction of the "one-child policy" in 1980, the population growth rate (annualized) declined from 1.07% in 1990 through 2000 to 0.57% in 2000 through 2010, thanks also to the advance in population mobility and the trend toward the nuclear family, the number of persons per household decreased from 3.44 persons ten years ago to 3.10 persons.

The Chinese population in 2010 had the following characteristics.

(1) Gender composition: Males 51.27% and females 48.73%. Gender ratio: 105.2 males per 100 females
The gender ratio seems to suggest that the Confucian idea of the dominance of men over women is still alive in China. The population without family registration reached 13 million people, equivalent to 1% of the entire population, as couples who wanted a boy went ahead and gave birth to a second child in violation of the one-child policy and therefore could not register the birth. It is becoming more difficult for men of marrying age to find a spouse.

(2) Ethnic composition: Han people 91.51% and ethnic minorities 8.49%
Although the share of the population identified as Han Chinese declined 0.08 percentage points from a decade ago, it is still overwhelmingly high. As symbolized by the series of riots in Tibet in 2008 and in Xinjiang in 2009, ethnic minority issues can be a source of political and social instability in China.

(3) Age composition: 0 - 14 years old 16.60%, 15 - 59 years old 70.14%, and 60 years old and over 13.26%
Compared with ten years ago, the share of the young population aged from 0 to 14 declined 6.29 percentage points, while the share of people aged 60 or older rose 2.93 percentage points. It is likely that the population will age rapidly going forward, while the share of the working-age population aged from 15 to 59, which has been rising, will begin to decline. Although the aging of the population is a phenomenon generally observed in developed countries, China will have to face the challenge of entering this stage before it becomes affluent. The development of a social security system is an urgent task in preparation for the arrival of the aging society. The declining share of working-age people also means that the "demographic bonus" advantageous to economic growth will become a "demographic penalty" that acts against economic growth.

(4) Level of education: Universities or higher education 8.93%, high schools or vocational schools 14.03%, junior high schools 38.79%, elementary schools 26.78%, and other (including preschool children) 11.47%
The share of people with education to the level of university or higher rose to approximately two and half times the level (3.61%) ten years ago, reflecting a sharp increase in enrollment in universities in recent years, and this share is expected to rise further in the future. The illiteracy rate (the ratio of the illiterate population aged 15 or higher to the overall population) also declined from 6.72% in 2000 to 4.08% in 2010 with the spread of compulsory education. Overall, there has been a marked improvement in the quality of human capital.

Geographical distribution of population and income

Next, in terms of geographical distribution, it is clear that the population is shifting from rural areas to urban areas and from the western, the central, and the northeast regions to the eastern region, as people seek a more affluent life.

(1) Makeup of urban and rural areas: Urban areas 49.68% and rural areas 50.32%
The share of the population living in urban areas rose 13.46 percentage points from ten years ago, and the expansion of investments in housing and infrastructure associated with this shift has been a driving force for economic growth. Meanwhile, the population in rural areas still accounts for half of the entire population, although it is decreasing. China is still very much an agrarian nation, and it is fair to say that one cannot understand China without understanding her peasants. In 2010, net income per capita in rural areas was only 31.0% of disposable income per capita in urban areas, and for the Chinese government, which aims to create a harmonized society, the most important issue still remains solving the "three agriculture-related issues" (agriculture, rural areas, and peasants) symbolized by this income disparity.

(2) Administrative district composition (in the order of population): Guangdong Province 7.79%, Shandong Province 7.15%, and Henan Province 7.02%
Each of the top three provinces had a population of more than 90 million people, led by Guangdong Province with a population of 104.3 million people. In terms of GDP, the top three provinces were Guangdong Province (10.5% of the national GDP), Jiangsu Province (9.5%), and Shandong Province (9.1%), while municipalities directly under the central government in the eastern region topped the list in terms of GDP per capita, with Shanghai at the top (73,297 yuan), followed by Tianjin (70,402 yuan), and Beijing (70,251 yuan). By contrast, Guizhou Province in the western region had the lowest GDP per capita (13,221 yuan), which was less than one fifth that of Shanghai.

(3) Regional composition: the eastern region 37.98%, the central region 26.76%, the western region 27.04%, and the northeastern region 8.22%
The massive inflow of labor from other regions is aggravating the concentration of the population in the eastern region. Over the past decade, the share of the population in the eastern region rose 2.41 percentage points, while the share of population in the western, central, and northeastern region fell 1.11 percentage points, 1.08 percentage points, and 0.22 percentage points, respectively. Including intraregional shifts, the mobile population whose domicile and family registration differ reached 261.39 million people. Migrant workers moving from rural areas to urban areas account for most of the mobile population, and family registration system reforms are vital to enabling them and their families to settle in urban areas.

Comparing GDP per capita in each region in 2010, the eastern region was highest at 45,317 yuan (a little over 570,000 yen based on 1 yuan = 12.6 yen) followed by the northeastern region (33,866 yuan), the central region (23,950 yuan), and the western region (22,429 yuan). As can be seen, the figure for the East was about double the figure for the West.

On one hand, the large income disparity between urban areas and rural areas, between administrative districts, and between the eastern region and other regions has been a factor promoting migration. On the other hand, migration helps reduce the income disparity between regions.

The original text in Japanese was posted on June 1, 2011

June 1, 2011