Economics Behind the Census

The seventh national population census shines light on Chinese economic and social development trends

On the morning of May 11, 2021, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) of China released the results of its seventh national population census. The census statistics present a clear outline of the size, structure, and distribution of China’s population as well as demographic changes from 2010 to 2020. The statistical data also point to economic and social development trends in China over the last decade.

People’s Square Metro Station in Shanghai during peak hours on August 16, 2017. (YANG HUANMIN)

Higher Education Level

According to the latest census data, China’s population growth continued over the past decade but at a slower rate. With the population on the mainland reaching 1.41 billion in 2020, an increase of 5.38 percent from 2010, China remains the most populous country in the world. Average annual growth between 2010 and 2020 registered 0.53 percent, slightly lower than the 0.57 percent over the previous decade.

The census results show that China’s population is still characterized by a huge base figure and an enormous size. As far as the global economy is concerned, the country will continue to benefit from its super-large-scale market in the long term. “Considering China’s demographic trends in recent years, the population growth rate will continue to slow in the future,” said Ning Jizhe, deputy head of the Leading Group of the State Council for the Seventh National Population Census and commissioner of the NBS, at a press conference. “China’s population is estimated to stay above 1.4 billion for the indefinite future, and considerable uncertainty remains as to when exactly it will peak.”

China still enjoys an abundant labor supply with a working age population (aged 16 to 59) of 880 million, according to the most recent census figures. Despite a drop in the size of this demographic group by over 40 million compared to 10 years ago, the education level of China’s labor force has improved substantially. Statistics show that the population who had received or were receiving college-level education reached 218.36 million in 2020 and the number of people per 100,000 receiving college education and above increased from 8,930 in 2010 to 15,467 last year.

China’s economic takeoff after reform and opening-up was largely driven by the sheer size of its labor force, but the recent decade saw increasing dependence on knowledge and professional expertise as technology and innovation became key drivers of growth. A continued rise in the education level of China’s population is expected to yield new economic dividends soon.

Increased Population Mobility

China’s seventh national population census found greater mobility in its people with a sizable proportion living outside their household registration areas. In 2020, the country’s floating population reached 376 million, an increase of nearly 70 percent over the previous 10 years. The internal migration of Chinese people also displayed common tendencies.

According to NBS Commissioner Ning, the migration trend was people moving towards cities along major rivers, coastal areas, and inland metropolitan clusters. The Yangtze River Delta, the Pearl River Delta, the Chengdu-Chongqing city cluster, and other major city clusters have experienced rapid population growth over the recent decade, Ning said.

Guangdong, Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Shandong, and Henan are the top five provinces in terms of population growth. As a leading economic powerhouse, Guangdong saw an increase of 21.7 million people in the last 10 years, making it the most populous provincial region in China. By contrast, 11.01 million people left the three northeastern provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning during the same period, and the three provinces’ share in the national population dropped to 6.98 percent from 8.18 percent in 2010. Such loss of population has generated discussion on how to attract and retain people.

The regional economic situation played a primary role in the population shift. According to Liu Xiangdong, deputy director of the Economic Research Department at China Center for International Economic Exchanges, the main factors contributing to population inflow include booming industries, attractive jobs, and decent salaries. In addition to employment opportunities, healthcare, education, and living environment also affect people’s choice of where to live. The growing momentum of population movement to metropolitan clusters is expected to benefit the service industry, help stimulate corporate innovation, and create more application scenarios for big data, artificial intelligence and other cutting-edge technologies that propel development of the new economy.

The large-scale internal migration in China shows regional variations and presents challenges. “Regions facing population decline or a sluggish economy should consider industrial restructuring,” suggested Liu. “In big cities, measures must be taken to manage ‘big city disease’ caused by a huge influx of migrant population.”

Broad Senior Market

NBS spokesperson Fu Linghui said on May 11 that recent census data show Chinese people aged 60 or above accounted for 18.7 percent of the country’s total population in 2020, which made China an aging society according to international standards.

With the proportion of elderly people increasing by 5.44 percentage points from 2010, the older population in China is expanding. According to Yuan Xin, professor at the School of Economics of Nankai University and vice president of the China Population Association, both the birth rate and the death rate dropped in China, which accelerated population aging. The decline in fertility rate resulted in fewer new people joining the lower age group, while rising life expectancy resulted in a progressive increase of people at the top of the age structure. That is how a shift in distribution of a country’s population towards older ages has happened. The aging population is an important trend of social development, and it will be China’s basic national condition for a long time, noted NBS Commissioner Ning.

The growth of China’s senior population creates both challenges and opportunities. It means a smaller labor force, more burdens on families, and greater pressure on basic public services. However, it will help facilitate development of the “silver economy.” White Paper on China’s Senior-care Industry Development issued by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in 2016 estimated that the industry scale of this sector will reach 13 trillion yuan (US$2.03 trillion) by 2030.

In fact, Chinese businesses are seizing opportunities created by the booming senior market. According to Chinese corporate information platform tianyancha.com, the number of the newly-registered companies in elder care-related sectors has been rising in recent years. Over 50,000 such firms were established in 2020, an increase of 8 percent year-on-year, and 17,000 more were registered as of May 10 this year.

A wide gap still remains in supply and demand of products and services related to seniors such as healthcare, leisure, and finance. Many growing professions don’t have enough personnel. With continued growth of the aging population, China’s “silver economy” enjoys bright prospects.

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