China Power | Society | East Asia

How Many People Are in China? The Government Just Started Counting.

The once-a-decade census is now underway, and the results will have important data on China’s aging population and rural-urban divide.

Shannon Tiezzi
How Many People Are in China? The Government Just Started Counting.
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz

On November 1, China deployed an army of 7 million census takers to go door-to-door, gathering data about its population. It’s the seventh iteration of China’s census, and the first since 2010. The once-in-a-decade survey will provided updated information on China’s population – including crucial statistics on age distribution, as the country grapples with a stubbornly low birthrate, even after scrapping the infamous “one child” policy.

Census takers will be gathering information from November 1 through December 10, according to Xinhua, and the results will be released in April 2021.

In a sign of the importance ascribed to the count, state news agency Xinhua ran a story about President Xi Jinping’s own interview with two census takers. During the interview, Xi “called for good census work to provide accurate statistical information for China’s high-quality development,” according to Xinhua. Xi’s census instructions received top billing on Xinhua’s Chinese-language homepage on November 2.

Xi expressed particular interest in knowing the “population’s size, structure, and distribution.” The statistics gathered in the census – particularly “demographic change trends” – should “provide accurate statistical information for the improvement of China’s population development strategy and policy system, the creation of economic and social development plans and the promotion of high-quality development,” Xinhua paraphrased Xi as saying.

China’s demographics are of “overall and strategic significance,” according to Xi.

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Of particular importance to Chinese policymakers will be the age breakdown of the population. China’s government relaxed restrictions on births in 2015, allowing two children to all couples, but the resulting “birth bump” has been disappointing. China’s aging population is a matter of serious concern for Beijing, with ramifications for everything from military preparedness to economic health.

In 2019, Chinese aged between 15 and 59 (the working age population) made up 64 percent of the population, with those 60 and above accounting for 19 percent, according to the South China Morning Post. The coming census data will provide a more systemic count, becoming the new benchmark for future projections of China’s aging crisis. That data will also heavily shape government policies designed to combat that crisis.

The census will also provide important statistics on the urbanization rate in China – reported at 60.6 percent in 2019 – and internal migration patterns. With advancing “new urbanization” and easing the rural-urban wealth gap among of the government’s goals for the next five years, data from the census will be key to not only counting the number of rural vs urban residents but honing in on any gaps in education and employment status.

As always, for external researchers there will be serious (and irresolvable) questions about how much trust to place in data gathered and released by the Chinese government. In the past, for example, the official census data has adjusted the estimated population (and, as a corollary, the reported birth rate for past years) downward, but by negligible amounts overall. Independent researchers used the 2010 census to estimate that births had been inflated by as much as 5 million (roughly one-fourth of the total reported) in 1997 alone. There will be little alternative to using the official count as a baseline in research going forward, but it should be done with eyes wide open.

Finally, in a small but telling shift, the census data will be gathered using tablets and smartphones for the first time. The Xinhua article made a point of noting the technological aspects of Xi’s census experience, noting that “[h]is answers were registered on a tablet computer, and he then signed a digital form.” A separate Xinhua article outlined the importance of “fast-developing digital devices and technologies such as smartphones, big data, and QR codes” in gathering and processing census data.

“With the assistance of smart devices, this year’s census has been significantly more efficient compared with the previous one,” Xinhua cited a census taker as saying.

The focus on technology is in keeping with the Chinese government’s growing emphasis on technology and innovation, a crucial peg of the upcoming five-year plan to be released in 2021.