The fall and rise of China's population

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 April, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 April, 1999, 12:00am

The population of China just keeps on growing. It is the most populous country in the world. There are about 1.2 billion people on the mainland. Every fifth baby born in the world is Chinese. These facts cover pretty much everything the average citizen of the world knows about the mainland's population. They are short, snappy, simple to remember - and more than a little misleading.

The mainland population is certainly growing now, but there were periods when it shrank year by year. And as for the size of the population, some demographers believe the present total is closer to 1.3 billion than 1.2 billion. A census being prepared may give a more accurate answer.

And yes, China is now the most populous country in the world, but it is likely to lose that title to India in the first decades of the new millennium. India is shortly to produce its billionth citizen.

When people say every fifth baby born in the world is Chinese, what they really mean is that a fifth of the world's six billion population is Chinese. But we do not all have the same number of babies.

China has more citizens than India, but more babies are being produced in India. In each group of 1,000 people in China, there will be about 16 births and seven deaths a year. But in India, every group of 1,000 people will produce 26 babies, and nine people will die. In other words, China is producing about 19 million babies a year, while India is producing about 24 million. The world in total gets 80 million additional people a year.

Population growth is a remarkable thing. It took the whole of history from the emergence of the first homo sapien to the 1800s to produce the first one billion human beings. But less than two centuries later, by 1960, we had grown to three billion. These days, we add a billion people to the planet every 12 years.

That is a lot of mouths. So is the mainland doing the right thing, forcing couples to limit themselves to one child? Sociologists around the world generally think not. Such a policy may keep numbers lower than otherwise. The trouble is, there is a huge cost to pay in terms of millions of murdered girls and hundreds of millions of miserable families.

A less painful way would be to loosen totalitarian control, and let the mainland blossom into a free, market-orientated democracy. As the country would become wealthier, population growth would fall by itself. But this would mean loss of privileges to the old men now in power, so they are unwilling to let it happen.

In industrialised democracies, population growth is low. Today, the average family in such nations consists of two parents and one-and-a-half children.

This innocent-sounding fact has important implications. Since it takes two people to produce a child, but couples are producing less than two 'replacement' people, populations will ultimately shrink.

But the countries where this is happening make up only one-fifth of the world population. Poorer countries, where couples generally produce between two and seven children, make up the majority of the world.

China has always had a big population when compared to neighbours. During the first century AD, there were about 50 million people in China. It took until the 11th century for the country to attain a population of 100 million. By the early 1600s, there were about 130 million Chinese, making China easily the biggest empire in the world. And then everything went wrong.

Civil war broke out. Foreigners invaded. Separatists rebelled. Floods broke river banks. Epidemics swept towns. The population went steadily downwards, some scholars say by 50 million, over a period of about 60 years. In the 1680s, the population started its upward climb again, and grew to 200 million by 1762, and 421 million by 1846.

Then, between 1958 and 1962, Chairman Mao Zedong, by sheer incompetence and obstinacy, managed to kill 30 million of his own people. Mao then ordered a policy of encouraging parents to have large families. Another bad idea. This was reversed in 1979 by the introduction of the one-child policy. A census in 1982 showed the mainland officially broaching the one billion mark, and the population is now estimated at 1.28 billion.

Then we have the 'overseas Chinese' or huaqiao. They consist of two sub-groups. The Cantonese dominate. Ninety-nine per cent of Chinese who settled in the United States in 1957 came from Guangdong, according to the historian Lynn Pan.

The first Chinese people to arrive in the US were three men who arrived in a boat called The Pallas in 1785. This was a vessel running a trade route from Guangzhou to Baltimore. (At the time, California was an unexplored wilderness with few human beings - and some people say nothing much has changed.) In 1820, one Chinese person officially immigrated to the US. By 1880, there were more than 100,000 Chinese there, mostly from Siyi, on the west side of the Pearl River Delta in Guangdong. Things have sped up. In 1990 alone, 270,000 Chinese emigrated to the US, adding to the 1.6 million already there.

Canada has also a large Chinese population. In 1991, there were 586,645 Chinese there. After English and French, Chinese is the most spoken language in Canadian homes.

Meanwhile, a different Chinese sub-population, the Fujianese (or Hokkienese) conquered Southeast Asia. A survey between 1986 and 1990 showed that more than half the Chinese in Indonesia were Fujianese, as were 42 per cent of Chinese in Singapore, 37 per cent in Malaysia, and more than 90 per cent of Chinese in the Philippines.

By 2050, there will be 9.5 billion people in the world, according to United Nations estimates, and eight billion of these will be from 'developing countries'.

No longer can Earth be thought of as 'a white man's world'.



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