Why is China’s census important? The decennial census is key to gauging changes in the size and diversity of China’s population, making it an essential tool for future government policies. Government investment in infrastructure and social welfare are closely related to demographics. For instance, the number of children or elderly determined by the census forms the basis for planning schools and retirement homes. One of the key reasons so-called ghost towns with few residents or functioning businesses dot the country is because local governments have in the past overestimated population growth when planning new districts. Many of these shrinking cities have seen huge infrastructure investment while the population is in decline. Demographers also monitor census data closely because it gives them an opportunity to verify the accuracy of annual birth data published by the central government. In previous years, there has been a large gap between official data and academic estimates based on the census. For instance, combining 2010 census data with separate information on the infant death rate and life expectancy, demographers Huang Wenzheng and Liang Jianzhang estimated in September there were 15.7 million births in 1997, which was nearly 5 million fewer than the official figure. Few local governments regularly disclose birth figures. In one rare case, Ningbo, a city in the eastern province of Zhejiang that has a population close to that of New York City, reported a nearly 20 per cent decline in new births in the first half of 2020. China census delay may be due to coronavirus impact on migrant workers How does China’s census work? China conducted its seventh national population census in November and December 2020, where a huge range of personal and household information, including the age, education, occupation, marital and migration status of people living in the world’s most populous nation was gathered. Because of the vast number of people surveyed, it will in theory provide the most accurate information on changes to China’s population and be used as a key resource for future planning. The mainland population refers to people living in the 31 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities directly under the central government and servicemen of the Chinese mainland, excluding residents of Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan and foreigners, the NBS explained. For two months, some seven million census takers went from door-to-door to collect information from Chinese households, with each official assigned to 250 people. The National Bureau of Statistics and local governments will then release information within two years, although preliminary results are expected after a few months. China will also conduct a sample survey of 1 per cent of the population – also known as “micro population census” – between the 2020 census and the 2030 census to monitor population changes, according to official regulations. What did China’s previous censuses tell us? The previous six population censuses were conducted in 1953, 1964, 1982, 1990, 2000 and 2010. Over the past decade, annual government data has shown that the make-up of China’s population has shifted rapidly, with the number of elderly rising and new births declining, despite the abolition of the notorious one-child policy. From 2000-10, the working-age population between 15 and 59 grew as a share of the total population from 66 per cent to 70 per cent. But by the end of 2019, the ratio had fallen to 64 per cent, below the level recorded in 2000. At the same time, the ratio of people aged 60 and above rose by 3 percentage points to 13 per cent in the decade to 2010 and continued upwards to 19 per cent at the end of last year. How did China’s seventh census differ from previous ones? In 2020, the population census collected people’s ID numbers, which did raise privacy concerns, although officials said the information would be kept confidential. Census takers also used smartphones to collect information, with support from Chinese technology giant Tencent. The government also tailored the way it conducted the census to account for how the coronavirus pandemic affected different regions. In high-risk areas, it was conducted by phone or online. Want to know more? In every episode of the Inside China podcast, we take a deep-dive into a specific topic, mixing independent reporting and exclusive interviews to bring you unique insights into an emerging potential superpower. Now, we are featuring regular updates on the coronavirus pandemic from across the country. Also, each week political economy journalist Finbarr Bermingham wraps up the latest developments in tariffs, diplomacy and economics from reporters and editors at the Post in the China Geopolitics podcast.