Children in Xianghe county, Hebei province, learn the traditional art of paper-cutting during their summer vacation. The over-reporting of student in enrolment in Chinese schools points to a bigger problem with obtaining an accurate population count. Photo: Xinhua
Yi Fuxian
Yi Fuxian

China’s population numbers are almost certainly inflated to hide the harmful legacy of its family planning policy

  • China has inflated its population data so much that its status as the world’s most populous country may be false
  • This happens so provinces can get education subsidies and Beijing can hide the results of decades of family planning
China’s official demographic figures, including the now-cliched “country of 1.4 billion people”, seriously misrepresent the country’s real population landscape. The real size of China’s population could be 115 million fewer than the official number, putting China behind India in terms of population.

This massive error, equal to the combined populations of the United Kingdom and Spain, is a product of China’s rigged population statistics system, influenced by the vested interests of China’s family planning authority.

To start with, the raw data of China’s population figures were “adjusted”. China’s total fertility rate, or the number of kids per woman throughout her life, dropped below the watershed level of 2.1 in 1991, from which moment the population size of the next generation would be smaller than the current one, and the average total fertility rate was 1.36 in 1994-2018, according to data from census and surveys. However, the family planning authority in charge of the country’s population control refused to believe the numbers and “adjusted” the rate to 1.6-1.8 and, accordingly, the official population size.

For instance, the real total fertility rate in 2000 was 1.22, according to a census result, but the government revised it to 1.8. Accordingly, the country had 14.1 million new births in 2000, but the government revised the figure by 26 per cent to 17.7 million. A census, which is conducted every 10 years, should provide the truest picture of China’s demographic situation. But for the 2000 census, the government was unhappy about the original finding of 1.24 billion and revised it up to 1.27 billion.

One incentive to inflate population size is that China’s family planning authority needs to present a picture of a “rapidly growing population” to justify the country’s brutal family control policies and even the very existence of the birth control apparatus.

The basis for these adjustments, according to the Chinese government, is the size of primary school enrolment. For the official statisticians, the primary school enrolment data should be reliable because public education covers every Chinese child. They were wrong, however, because primary school enrolment data in China is often inflated so that local authorities can claim more education subsidies from Beijing.

China should simply adapt to having fewer babies

In 2012, one school in Anhui was found over-reporting its student size by 42 per cent to claim subsidies, and another school in Hubei province was discovered in the same year over-reporting student size by more than 300 per cent – and these two cases are the tip of an iceberg.

According to a report by CCTV on January 7, 2012, the Jieshou city in Anhui province reported 51,586 primary school students, when the actual number was only 36,234, allowing them to extract an additional 10.63 million yuan (about US$1.54 million) in state funding. On June 4, 2012, China Youth Daily reported that a middle school in Yangxin county, Hubei province reported 3,000 students, while the actual number was only 700.

The latest census in 2010 also shows the tendency of over-reporting. For example, the original aggregated population of Fujian province was only 33.29 million, which was revised to 36.89 million. China’s government claimed it found 1.34 billion people during the census, but there were inconsistencies. For instance, government data showed that China had 366 million new births in 1991-2010, but the group aged 0-19 in 2010 census was only 321 million.

The official number of births in 2011-2018 is also overestimated by 40 million. While Beijing is overestimating new births, it is underreporting the other end of population change – death. Some Chinese families have a tendency of not reporting deaths to the government in order to keep receiving social welfare.

Also, according to UN data, there was a net international emigration of 8 million from China in 1991-2018. But Chinese officials ignored this data.

China’s population to peak in 2023, five years earlier than official estimates

It’s not an easy job to get a country’s population number right. This is especially true in China, where the territory is vast and domestic migration is frequent.

But Beijing’s mishandling of the country’s population figures has been clumsy and easy to spot. China’s real population in 2018 should be 1.280 billion, instead of the officially announced 1.395 billion. China's economic, social, political, educational and diplomatic policies are all based on false demographic data. After decades of brutal implementation of birth control, often involving forced abortions and hefty fines, maybe it’s time for China to review its population figures carefully to take stock of the economic and social costs of this controversial demographic experiment.

Yi Fuxian is a senior scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of Big Country with an Empty Nest