China Table of Contents

The People's Republic conducted censuses in 1953, 1964, and 1982. In 1987 the government announced that the fourth national census would take place in 1990 and that there would be one every ten years thereafter. The 1982 census, which reported a total population of 1,008,180,738, is generally accepted as significantly more reliable, accurate, and thorough than the previous two. Various international organizations eagerly assisted the Chinese in conducting the 1982 census, including the United Nations Fund for Population Activities which donated US$15.6 million for the preparation and execution of the census.

The nation began preparing for the 1982 census in late 1976. Chinese census workers were sent to the United States and Japan to study modern census-taking techniques and automation. Computers were installed in every provincial-level unit except Xizang and were connected to a central processing system in the Beijing headquarters of the State Statistical Bureau. Pretests and smallscale trial runs were conducted and checked for accuracy between 1980 and 1981 in twenty-four provincial-level units. Census stations were opened in rural production brigades and urban neighborhoods. Beginning July 1, 1982, each household sent a representative to a census station to be enumerated. The census required about a month to complete and employed approximately 5 million census takers.

The 1982 census collected data in nineteen demographic categories relating to individuals and households. The thirteen areas concerning individuals were name, relationship to head of household, sex, age, nationality, registration status, educational level, profession, occupation, status of nonworking persons, marital status, number of children born and still living, and number of births in 1981. The six items pertaining to households were type (domestic or collective), serial number, number of persons, number of births in 1981, number of deaths in 1981, and number of registered persons absent for more than one year. Information was gathered in a number of important areas for which previous data were either extremely inaccurate or simply nonexistent, including fertility, marital status, urban population, minority ethnic groups, sex composition, age distribution, and employment and unemployment.

A fundamental anomaly in the 1982 statistics was noted by some Western analysts. They pointed out that although the birth and death rates recorded by the census and those recorded through the household registration system were different, the two systems arrived at similar population totals. The discrepancies in the vital rates were the result of the underreporting of both births and deaths to the authorities under the registration system; families would not report some births because of the one-child policy and would not report some deaths so as to hold on to the rations of the deceased. Nevertheless, the 1982 census was a watershed for both Chinese and world demographics. After an eighteen-year gap, population specialists were given a wealth of reliable, up-to-date figures on which to reconstruct past demographic patterns, measure current population conditions, and predict future population trends. For example, Chinese and foreign demographers used the 1982 census age-sex structure as the base population for forecasting and making assumptions about future fertility trends. The data on age-specific fertility and mortality rates provided the necessary base-line information for making population projections. The census data also were useful for estimating future manpower potential, consumer needs, and utility, energy, and health-service requirements. The sudden abundance of demographic data helped population specialists immeasurably in their efforts to estimate world population. Previously, there had been no accurate information on these 21 percent of the earth's inhabitants. Demographers who had been conducting research on global population without accurate data on the Chinese fifth of the world's population were particularly thankful for the 1982 census.

Mortality and Fertility

In 1949 crude death rates were probably higher than 30 per 1,000, and the average life expectancy was only 32 years. Beginning in the early 1950s, mortality steadily declined; it continued to decline through 1978 and remained relatively constant through 1987. One major fluctuation was reported in a computer reconstruction of China's population trends from 1953 to 1987 produced by the United States Bureau of the Census (see table 6, Appendix A; data in this table may vary from officially reported statistics). The computer model showed that the crude death rate increased dramatically during the famine years associated with the Great Leap Forward, resulting in approximately 30 million deaths above the expected level.

According to Chinese government statistics, the crude birth rate followed five distinct patterns from 1949 to 1982. It remained stable from 1949 to 1954, varied widely from 1955 to 1965, experienced fluctuations between 1966 and 1969, dropped sharply in the late 1970s, and increased from 1980 to 1981. Between 1970 and 1980, the crude birth rate dropped from 36.9 per 1,000 to 17.6 per 1,000. The government attributed this dramatic decline in fertility to the wan xi shao (later marriages, longer intervals between births, and fewer children) birth control campaign. However, elements of socioeconomic change, such as increased employment of women in both urban and rural areas and reduced infant mortality (a greater percentage of surviving children would tend to reduce demand for additional children), may have played some role. To the dismay of authorities, the birth rate increased in both 1981 and 1982 to a level of 21 per 1,000, primarily as a result of a marked rise in marriages and first births. The rise was an indication of problems with the one-child policy of 1979. Chinese sources, however, indicated that the birth rate decreased to 17.8 in 1985 and remained relatively constant thereafter.

In urban areas, the housing shortage may have been at least partly responsible for the decreased birth rate. Also, the policy in force during most of the 1960s and the early 1970s of sending large numbers of high school graduates to the countryside deprived cities of a significant proportion of persons of childbearing age and undoubtedly had some effect on birth rates.

Primarily for economic reasons, rural birth rates tended to decline less than urban rates. The right to grow and sell agricultural products for personal profit and the lack of an oldage welfare system were incentives for rural people to produce many children, especially sons, for help in the fields and for support in old age. Because of these conditions, it is unclear to what degree propaganda and education improvements had been able to erode traditional values favoring large families.

Density and Distribution

Overall population density in 1986 was about 109 people per square kilometer. Density was only about one-third that of Japan and less than that of many other countries in Asia and in Europe. The overall figure, however, concealed major regional variations and the high person-land ratio in densely populated areas. In the 11 provinces, special municipalities, and autonomous regions along the southeast coast, population density was 320.6 people per square kilometer.

In 1986 about 94 percent of the population lived on approximately 36 percent of the land. Broadly speaking, the population was concentrated in China Proper, east of the mountains and south of the Great Wall. The most densely populated areas included the Chang Jiang Valley (of which the delta region was the most populous), Sichuan Basin, North China Plain, Zhu Jiang Delta, and the industrial area around the city of Shenyang in the northeast.

Population is most sparse in the mountainous, desert, and grassland regions of the northwest and southwest. In Nei Monggol Autonomous Region, portions are completely uninhabited, and only a few sections have populations more dense than ten people per square kilometer. The Nei Monggol, Xinjiang, and Xizang autonomous regions and Gansu and Qinghai provinces comprise 55 percent of the country's land area but in 1985 contained only 5.7 percent of its population.

Population Control Programs

For more recent population estimates, see Facts about China.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress