Where are they now? Six takeaways from China’s census

China’s National Bureau of Statistics has released the results of the 2020 census, showing mainland population of 1.41 billion.

Photo from CFP

Photo from CFP

By LIU Lin, XIN Yuan, MAO Dun


On May 11, China’s National Bureau of Statistics released the results of the 2020 census, the seventh since 1990. The population of the Chinese mainland reached 1.41 billion, up 5.4 percent from 2010. The data provides a fascinating snapshot of the trends that are reshaping the most populous country in the world.

Population growth slows

The 1.41 billion total is higher than predicted due to some differences in methodology. The census tries to count everyone in the country, while other population surveys extrapolate from small samples (0.1 percent for annual surveys, and 1 percent for five-yearly surveys).

Nevertheless, population growth has slowed, mainly driven by falling births. Only 12 million children were born in 2020, an 0.85 birth rate much lower than the 1.19 average over the past ten years. The actual drop might have been even larger since total births are likely to be undercounted in annual surveys. Additionally, population growth was subdued in 2020 due to the pandemic.

People are moving

People have moved, both between cities and within them. There are 493 million people who do not live at their registered permanent address, twice as many as ten years ago. Of them, 376 million, 70 percent more than before, are migrant workers.

A more unexpected finding is that 117 million people, three times as many as in 2010, have relocated within their hometowns, probably living in a second house or renting. Increased mobility has implications for public services, fiscal transfers and labor policies.

Squeezed in the middle

Compared to ten years ago, there are more children, fewer working-age people and more old people. Specifically, adults above 60 make up 18 percent of the population, up from 13 percent in 2010. In contrast, the percentage of people aged from 15 to 50 fell to 63 percent, down from 70 percent. This implies more pressure on pension funds and social resources. Also noteworthy is the increase in the percentage of children under14 years old, 18 percent vs 16.6 percent in 2010.

Smaller Families

The average household has fallen to 2.6 people from 3.1 in 2010. Various economic and social issues may result from smaller families and increased mobility, including changes to the housing market, marriage, parenting and elderly care.

Follow the money

The population of 25 provinces grew, with Guangdong topping the list. Only six, all in the north, saw their populations contract. All six endured significant slowdowns in GDP growth, much more so than the rest of the country. In other words, people are moving where the money is.

Urban magnets

Up from around half in 2010, 64 percent of China’s population now lives in cities, a bigger increase than anyone expected. The sheer size urban population — over 900 million — and its continuing rapid increase adds urgency to labor and social security reform.