Barcelona Field Studies Centre

China: Demographic Transition

Niu Yi Qiao, Barcelona, February 27th 2005

During the past 50 years, China has experienced demographic change at an historic scale. This has had a profound impact upon its population structure. This article by Barcelona-based Chinese student Niu Yi Qiao outlines the causes and impacts of the change.

China's Demographic Transition

Pre - 1949: China had experienced a century of imperial decline, natural disasters, foreign invasion and civil unrest. Life expectancy was as low as 36 years. The communists took over in 1949 after the civil war and began to modernize China.

1949 - 1958: The communists shifted their attention to economic development and together with a rich resource base there was a 10% annual growth rate in the economy. A very successful healthcare program and better nutrition brought a marked fall in the death rate, especially in infant mortality. Most of the population was still rural and people's minds were still dominated by the traditional view: more children to work the land, more children as a guarantee for security in old age. The birth rate was high and consequently the natural increase was rapid.

1958 - 1963: The communist leader Mao (who was a very successful politician and general, but not a great economic planner) was impatient with the rate of progress. What followed was the 'Great Leap Forward' policy (see below), a forced industrialization during which millions of peasants were made to leave the land to work in factories. The slogan at the time was 'overtake the British, race the Americans'. The political mismanagement and low agricultural production (there was a shortage for farmers) led to widespread famine and caused 25-30 million deaths, and a 30-35% fall in the birth rate. The death rate rose higher than the birth rate and the population experienced 5 years of natural decrease.

1962 - 1980: The 'demographic disaster' of the Great Leap Forward was followed by a baby boom in the mid-1960s and the economy began to recover. The introduction of private enterprise raised the level of food production. Throughout the 1970s politicians sought to bring about a drastic reduction in family size as they realised that a huge population threatened to outgrow the available resources. What emerged was the 'one child policy', which has been very successful in reducing birth rates. The implementation of the policy was harsh and there were strict penalties: the 'Granny Police' watched over couples of childbearing age, and if a couple had more than one child, both parents would lose their jobs. The local government would issue a fine large enough to bankrupt the family and worse, the 'illegal' child would not be given a 'household register' which was necessary for school enrolment and applying for jobs. Usually, a married couple would fulfil the policy out of fear alone, although due to industrialisation and improved education, people were becoming more receptive to new ideas. Contraception was widely practiced throughout China in order to reduce pregnancies and widen the spacing between births. A steady reduction in the birth rate resulted.

1980 - 1990: Economic growth slowed due to inflation and a trade imbalance. Due to the success of the rigid one child policy, birth rates continued to decrease although in 1984 there was a slight rise.

1990 - Today: China is now a 'post-transitional' society, where life expectancy has reached new heights, fertility has declined to below-replacement level, and rapid population ageing is on the horizon. China's fertility rateIn the not-too-distant future, in a matter of a few decades, China's population will start to shrink. In this process, China will also lose its position as the most populous country in the world to India. The 'one child policy' has recently been relaxed to a 'two child policy' in many districts in order to avoid the problems an ageing population could bring. This has additional implications: it is usually the rural villages that have established the 'two child policy', meaning that in future China's population may be dominated by undereducated peasants (who already comprise 70% of the population). In the more advanced cities, it is not only the local government policy that maintains a low birthrates, but the change in people's mentality. Most Chinese women have their own career and are unwilling to sacrifice their job for children. The expense of raising a child has also been taken into consideration by new couples. It is likely the Chinese government will soon consider a 'three child policy' to force couples into having more babies in order to maintain a low-cost workforce.

China & India, 1995: Total Population by Age and Sex

China & India, 1995: Total Population by Age and Sex.
Source: UN Population Division (1995): World Population Prospects, 1950-2050.
Chart: G.K. Heilig, 1996, IIASA-LUC


The Great Leap Forward

During the Great Leap Forward which was initiated in 1958, between 25million to 35million Chinese population leaped into the grave. What was the Great Leap Forward, which had such a profound influence on Chinese society?

1958 was an important year in the Communist revolution: the Three Red Flags (the 'General Line', the 'Great Leap Forward' and the 'People's Commune') were put into effect. The Three Red Flags have a political background. China like the former USSR employed planned economic developments. After asserting its position in 1949, the communist government issued two Five Year Plans. Communist Leader Mao was impatient with the rate China was developing and sought to quicken the pace, and from this was born the Three Red Flags Policy.

The General Line was simply a general direction for planned economic development. The essence of the General Line was: 'Kuai, Duo, Hao, Sheng' - meaning 'fast, numerous, effective and economical'.

The Great Leap Forward was the key cause of the demographic disaster of 1958-1962. It can be summarized as forced industrialization, during which millions of farmers were asked to leave the land and work in factories in the cities. The Great Leap Forward had a profound effect on the industry and agriculture of China at the time.

Industry: The slogan of the time was 'overtake the British, race the Americans'. To ensure the high productivity of iron and steel, the Communist Party Central Committee took several steps, one of them being the traditional 'human sea' tactic - the entire population was asked to join.China: the 'Human Sea' Even the blockhouses leftover from WWII were turned into mini blast furnaces. When there was a shortage of iron ore, local government officials led the local people (including schoolboys and elderly grannies) to nearby hills in search for a possible source of ore. In many areas, cooking utensils and in fact, any iron or steel-made objects (bicycle parts, hammers, etc) were taken away to be melted and used as raw material.

Agriculture: There was an equally harsh, if not worse demand in agriculture. During early 1958, the slogan was 'quantity, not quality'. By the end of 1958, quality disappeared altogether and only the numbers mattered. In many cases, local officials faked the production of crops. In one case, the local authority claimed that they managed to grow 65,217 kilograms of rice in one acre of land. It was discovered later that the farmers had plucked all the rice seedlings from other parts of the countryside and squeezed them into one plot. What resulted from the Great Leap Forward of agriculture was eventually the worst famine China has ever experienced: causing 25-35 million deaths.

The People's Commune was named after the Paris Commune during the French Revolution. It was first mentioned in an essay 'New Society, New People' published in the 'Red Flag' magazine. During 1958, Mao formally raised the issue of 'communities' with the society. Farming communities were militarized - a commune was a town-sized community controlling a dozen production brigades, which in turn contained several production lines. It was in some ways a wonderful, if typical communist idea - each production line was a large family. The farmers ate together in a canteen and lived within close distance to each other. Within the community everyone had food to eat, work to do. It was also believed that when the land was combined, farming would be more efficient. Unfortunately, the People's Commune, like most other communist policies, suffered from violations of human rights. Since all the farmers ate in a common canteen, cooking at home was absolutely forbidden. If smoke was seen coming from your chimney, the cauldrons, boilers, pans, and any other cooking utensil would be smashed as punishment. The People's Commune also had severe negative impacts on society. Within the commune, everyone expected each other to do the work and so productivity was low. Wasting food was a common sight because the food wasn't earned by the people's sweat and toil.

Conclusion: The Three Red Flags policy was a failure, mostly because Mao tried to force the development of China's economy, industry and agriculture. He once said that China was a 'country powerful in terms of its population, but not its economy.' In his attempt to turn China into an economic power, he only succeeded in pulling her backwards.

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What exactly is China's Population?

The one child policy has avoided the birth of 400 million people in three decades, according to the Chinese government, although, in fact, it applies to only 36% of the population and in the countryside many babies are not registered. Therefore, according to different institutions, the Chinese population in 2007 is in fact 1,600 million and not 1,300 as is officially announced. The government announced in April 2007 that the Chinese population will be less than 1,360 million in 2010 and 1,450 million in 2020.

China Update 2007: warnings of a "population rebound" as the one child policy is flouted