(June 2001) After conducting what was arguably the world’s most ambitious census ever last November, the Chinese government has begun to release the results. China’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) has reported that mainland China’s population totaled 1.266 billion last year, an increase of 132 million over the 1990 total. While that increase exceeds the entire population of Japan (127 million in 2000), the result met the government’s official goal of staying below 1.3 billion for 2000. The accuracy of the new data, however, remains a key question.

A Complicated Count

Once upon a time, China was known for censuses that were remarkably accurate by international standards, thanks to strict controls on housing and movement. In the past 20 years, however, a number of changes have made counting the world’s largest population vastly more complex.

After the government imposed birth restrictions in the late 1970s, families and local officials began concealing above-quota births and underreporting the number of young children to stay out of trouble. As a result, recent censuses have undercounted children younger than 6 by about 5 percent, according to Judith Banister, former head of the U.S. Census Bureau’s China branch and now a professor at Hong Kong’s University of Science and Technology. Birth registrations are particularly problematic: One 1995 conference of Chinese demographers concluded that an average of 30 percent of births were going uncounted at that time.

For now, it remains difficult to determine the impact of underreporting on the 2000 census. The census indicated, for example, that there were 3.44 people per Chinese household in 2000, down from 3.96 in 1990. But it is unclear how much of this shrinking family size is due to the hiding of young children as opposed to falling fertility levels. Census statisticians do make adjustments to compensate for underreporting, but some Chinese demographers believe that the scope of evasion was greater in the 1990s than ever before, making the adjustment process more difficult.

Besides compensating for underreporting, China’s census officials must also try to keep track of an increasingly mobile population. Agricultural reforms unleashed in the late 1970s boosted productivity and created labor surpluses in the countryside, prompting millions of rural migrants to seek work in China’s booming urban centers. In addition, both urban-to-urban and rural-to-rural migration have taken off as well. Estimates of the overall size of the country’s migratory, or “floating,” population run from 60 million to more than 100 million. Since many of these individuals move back and forth between their original home and their new residence over the course of a year, there were fears that the census would miss large portions of this group.

As it turned out, the census may have done better in this respect than expected, if the new urbanization data are any indication. The census results indicated a national urbanization rate of 36 percent, substantially higher than the 31 percent rate obtained from urban registration data at the end of 1999. That five percentage point difference — equivalent to roughly 60 million urban residents — was probably due to the use of a broader definition of “urban” in the census. In particular, rural migrants who lived in an urban area for more than six months in 2000 were designated urban residents for purposes of the census, whether or not they were registered in a city. Accordingly, it appears that the census succeeded in counting tens of millions of rural migrants who had lived in an urban area for more than half a year. Unfortunately, migrants who did not live in any one location — rural or urban — for more than six months in 2000 may still have been missed altogether.

Demographic Dilemmas

China’s central government, well aware of the difficulty of collecting good data from the country’s far-flung provinces, took steps to make the 2000 census as accurate as possible. Central authorities made a point of encouraging parents to register all of their children and offered to reduce fines for above-quota children in the run-up to the count last year.

But Beijing’s message of leniency was mixed. Family planning officials in particular did not want parents to believe birth restrictions would be eased every time the census is taken. In addition, local follow-through on Beijing’s promises was “a very mixed bag,” according to one Western diplomat in Beijing. In some cases, the fines were reduced or eliminated, only to be replaced by “child registration fees.” And no doubt many Chinese remembered that similar promises were made prior to the 1990 census, only to go unfulfilled.

In addition to encouraging parents to register their children, the government also decided to extend the census-taking period by several days to make the count as thorough as possible. But despite these efforts, the total population tally that emerged from the count was reportedly well below estimates from annual surveys. As a result, the NBS used a national survey conducted in December of 2000 as a basis for adjusting the census data. This step was not unprecedented in China: The government apparently used a post-census survey to correct expected errors in number of households in the 1982 census results.

The NBS aims to publish the complete census results in 2002, including samples of raw household level data. In the meantime, China’s leaders may be contemplating the dilemmas they face in attempting to acquire good data about their rapidly evolving population. While there is a powerful need to improve the quality of the data, some measures that could help in this respect — particularly a decisive easing of birth limits — would be anathema to officials focused on controlling population growth. Dramatic improvement in data collection would also expose the shortcomings of prior population estimates, resulting in a loss of face for those who had stood by previous surveys and censuses. Trying to both count and control the world’s largest population, it seems, will not get much easier anytime soon.

Bingham Kennedy, Jr. is an associate editor at the Population Reference Bureau.

Initial Chinese Census Results

On March 28, the Chinese government released the first batch of results from the country’s 2000 census. According to the new figures, mainland China’s population increased by 132 million (11.66 percent) between 1990 and 2000 to reach 1.266 billion. The total populations in the 1982 and 1990 censuses were 1.003 billion and 1.134 billion, respectively.

While most of the data will not be available until 2002, a number of more specific figures have been released:

  • China’s urban population now totals 455.94 million people, or 36.01 percent of the population.
  • Average family size is now 3.44 people per household, as opposed to 3.96 people in 1990.
  • People ages 65 and older now account for 6.96 percent of the population, an increase of 1.39 percentage points from 1990.
  • The illiteracy rate for those over 15 years old is 6.72 percent, down 9.16 percentage points from the 1990 figure.
  • The number of people with primary educations fell from 37.06 percent of the population in 1990 to 35.70 percent in 2000. On the other hand, the number of people with university educations rose from 1.42 percent of the population in 1990 to 3.61 percent in 2000.
  • Ethnic minorities now make up 8.41 percent of China’s population, compared with 8.04 percent in 1990.