China conducted its seventh national population census in November and December, and a huge range of personal and household information pertaining to age, education, occupation, migration and marital status of people living in the world’s most populous nation was gathered. Photo: Getty Images)
Zhou Xin
Zhou Xin

China’s population census data has become the worst-kept state secret

  • China’s statistics agency said last week that the country’s population still grew in 2020, refuting a report of a historic drop
  • But China’s statisticians have yet to confirm when they will release the results of the key once-in-a-decade census

China’s top statistics bureau missed its own schedule for releasing the results of its latest once-in-a-decade census, with the delay prompting people to wonder why.

One simple explanation is that China’s statisticians are taking additional time to make sure the population numbers are accurate and solid. After all, it is a big job to count more than 1 billion people in a country that is the size of a continent. In short, the delay could be just technical.

The other guess is that the delay could be political in nature as any change to the demographic picture in China could lead to rethinking and drastically adjusting of existing economic and social policies.

As such, every government agency has to be on the same page. It also takes time for the authorities to find the perfect way to explain the numbers, which remain state secrets until they are released to the public.

The country is walking into a demographic crisis. China’s overall population is peaking, if it has not already
China’s statistics agency said in a one-line statement last week that the country’s population still grew in 2020, in an apparent rebuttal of a Financial Times report that claimed the census had found a drop in the population. But the agency still kept people guessing as to when it will release the result.

While it is true that China’s statistics agency has a monopoly on the data as it is impossible for any third-party to conduct a separate census, the facts are almost written on the wall about China’s demographic picture with or without the highly guarded figures.

The country is walking into a demographic crisis. China’s overall population is peaking, if it has not already. The population may have kept growing in 2020, but that growth could stop in 2021.

The country’s policies for restricting births – a Chinese couple is now allowed to have two children under the current policy – has become not only redundant but also self-defeating for China.

These measures, including fines for people having a third child, are clearly aimed to serve the interests of a brutal family planning bureaucratic apparatus rather than the future of the nation.

It is now facing the daunting task of encouraging people to have more babies. A task that Japan, South Korea and Taiwan found extremely hard to do.

China is getting old at a speed and scale that dwarfs Japan, creating pressure that China’s pension and health care systems are not in good shape to cope with.

The latest census will offer numerical evidence to these trends. So in that sense, the result is already the worst-kept state secret.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: China census result is the worst-kept secret