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census poster
The People's Republic conducted censuses in 1953, 1964, 1982, 1990, 2000, 2010 and 2020. The nation began preparing for the 1982 census in late 1976. Chinese census workers were sent to the United States and Japan to study modern census-taking techniques and automation. Computers were installed in every provincial-level unit except Tibet and were connected to a central processing system in the Beijing headquarters of the State Statistical Bureau. Pretests and smallscale trial runs were conducted and checked for accuracy between 1980 and 1981 in twenty-four provincial-level units. Census stations were opened in rural production brigades and urban neighborhoods. Beginning July 1, 1982, each household sent a representative to a census station to be enumerated. The census required about a month to complete and employed approximately 5 million census takers. [Source: Library of Congress]

A fundamental anomaly in the 1982 statistics was noted by some Western analysts. They pointed out that although the birth and death rates recorded by the census and those recorded through the household registration system were different, the two systems arrived at similar population totals. The discrepancies in the vital rates were the result of the underreporting of both births and deaths to the authorities under the registration system; families would not report some births because of the one-child policy and would not report some deaths so as to hold on to the rations of the deceased. Nevertheless, the 1982 census was a watershed for both Chinese and world demographics. After an eighteen-year gap, population specialists were given a wealth of reliable, up-to-date figures on which to reconstruct past demographic patterns, measure current population conditions, and predict future population trends.

Good Websites and Sources: National Bureau of Statistics of the People's Republic of China stats.gov.cn;
United Nations Population Fund unescap.org ; Trends in Chinese Demography afe.easia.columbia.edu ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Institute of Population and Labor Economics cass.cn

2020 Chinese Census

The Seventh National Population Census of the People's Republic of China was conducted by the National Bureau of Statistics of the People's Republic of China between November 1, 2020 and December 10, 2020 by seven million census workers. Chinese were urged to participate in the census, with slogan "Daguo Dianming, Meini Buxing" ("a great nation calls the roll, it doesn't work without you"). The 2020 Chinese census covered all Chinese citizens living in mainland China, as well as those living abroad on temporary visas. Foreigners who live in the mainland for more than six months were counted in the data. [Source: Wikipedia]

The preliminary results were released on May 11, 2021, after being delayed by a month. Questions were raised about the delay, with some suggesting the census may reveal information the government doesn’t want revealed such a s a population decline. Yang Ge, who studies population and labor economics at government research institute Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told state media.“This will be the most accurate census in China in the past 30 years, and all parts of society have very high expectations,” [Source: Sophia Yan, The Telegraph, April 28, 2021]

On April 27, 2021, before the results of the 2020 census was released, the Financial Times reported that according to sources knowledgeable about the data of the 2020 census, China’s population in 2020 was below 1.4 billion. Chinese state media had earlier reported that Chinese mainland population in 2019 was 1.40005 billion. If true, this would indicate the first population decline since the Great Leap Forward.

Main Results from the 2020 Chinese Census

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census poster
China conducted a census in 2020, the first since 2010. China's population reached 1.41 billion in 2020, rising 5.38 percent from 2010, according to a census conducted in 2020. Official, the population of Mainland China grew from 1,339,724,852 in 2010 ro 1,411,778,724 in 2020. This was the smallest increase since modern population census taking began in China in the 1950s. China's three most-populous provinces remained unchanged: with Guangdong near Hong Kong at No.1 with a population of 126 million, followed by Shandong, a coastal province near Beijing, and Henan near Beijing. Jiangsu, near Shanghai, previously the fifth-most populous province, overtook Sichuan to claim the No.4 spot. [Source: Ryan Woo and Raju Gopalakrishnan, Reuters, May 11, 2021]

Guangdong's population rose 21 percent, the highest among major provinces and municipalities, followed by Zhejiang, due primarily to migration inflows. Populations in Tibet and Xinjiang 22 percent and 19 percent, respectively. A total of six provinces and autonomous regions saw their population’s fall, with Heilongjiang and Jilin in northeastern China showing the sharpest declines.

Ethnic Population: The population of Han Chinese in 2020 in 2010 was 1.29 billion, accounting for 91.11 percent of the total population. The population of ethnic minorities was 125.5 million, or 8.89 percent. Compared with the 2010 census, the Han Chinese population increased by 4.93 percent, while that of ethnic minorities increased by 10.26 percent.

Urban Versus Rural: The number of people living in urban areas — cities and towns — was 901.99 million, accounting for 63.89 percent of the total population, while 509.79 million people (36.11 percent) lived in rural areas. Compared to 2010, the urban population grew 236.42 million and the rural population decreased by 164.36 million. The proportion of urban population rose by 14.2 percent. Floating Population and Migration: The number of people who didn't live where they were registered stood at 492.76 million, up 88.52 percent from 2010, accounting for roughly a third of the entire population.

Population by Household Types According to China’s 2020 census and the National Bureau of Statistics of China: There were 494.16 million family households with 1,292.81 million persons and 28.53 million collective households with 118.97 million persons. The average size of a family household was 2.62 persons, or 0.48 person less than the 3.10 persons in 2010. The family households continued to downsize because of increasing population mobility and the fact that young people after marriage lived separately from parents with improved housing conditions. [Source: National Bureau of Statistics of China, May 11, 2021]

2010 Chinese Census

China conducted its once-a-decade census in November 2010. During the 10-day head count 6 million census-takers — more than the entire population of many countries — went door to door to document the huge demographic changes taking place in the world's most populous country. [Source: Associated Press, The Guardian, November 1, 2010]

It was the sixth time China carried out a national census but the first time it counted people where they lived not where their resident certificate, or hukou, was legally registered. The change makes its easier to track the demographic changes and will find the true size of China's cities, the populations of which have up to now only been estimates. The previous census in 2000 counted 1.295 billion people. In the 10 years since, there has been an extensive shift in the population base as millions of migrant workers have poured into urban areas from the countryside.

Among the questions of keenest interest to demographers: How many people have migrated from their homes in the countryside to work in the cities? How much has the male- female ratio been skewed by the traditional preference for sons with a one-child policy in place? How has the ethnic balance changed in sensitive areas such as Tibet and Xinjiang where minorities complain that an influx of Han Chinese is diluting their cultures?

Some wondered if the results were accurate — a common concern among Chinese that official figures are often fudged to create a false sense of optimism. Guo Ying, a 31-year-old office worker in Beijing, told AP, "The final result might not be true and therefore it would be meaningless. Some figures are said to be found through investigation, but is that true? A lot of people have their doubts. Figures like the CPI (consumer price index), the GDP, do they reflect the real situation? Many people are skeptical."

Results of the 2010 Chinese Census

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Angry Asia blog take on the census
The results of the People's Republic of China (PRC) 2010 Census was published in late April 2011. Notable information included: 1) the average growth rate was 0.57 percent a year, meaning that the population expanding in the 2000s at a markedly slower pace than the 1.07 percent recorded in the previous decade. 2) The populace was graying faster than expected even as the number of young men and women entering the job force will start declining soon. 3) 49.7 percent of China’s population lives in urban areas, up from 36.1 percent in the 2000 census, which used a different counting system. [Source: Willy Lam, China Brief, Jamestown Foundation, May 6, 2011]

According to the 2010 census, China’s "floating population" — as defined by people who live apart from their domicile as defined by China’s stringent hukou or household registration system — mushroomed from 144 million in 2000 to 261 million in 2010. Most of these are migrant workers from the heartland provinces who seek opportunities in manufacturing centers such as Guangdong and Shanghai. [Source: Willy Lam, China Brief, March 10, 2011]

Between 2000 and 2010 the eastern coast’s share of the population increased by 2.41 percent to reach 37.98 percent, while that of the western and central regions declined respectively by 1.11 percent and 1.08 percent to reach 27.04 percent and 26.76 percent. With 104.30 million people, Guangdong is now the country’s most populous province. That honor used to belong to Henan. With 94.02 million people, the central province has dropped to No. 3, behind coastal Shandong, which boasts a populace of 95.79 million.

2010 Chinese Census Methods

The census took place from November 1 to 10, 2011. The previous September census volunteers went door-to-door across China, taking an initial poll of how many people lived in each home and recorded cell phone numbers so workers could get get in touch with them when the census officially began.

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Census methods have varied by location. Millions in Beijing received Short Message Service communications on their cellphones instructing them to cooperate. In some neighborhoods, census takers have offered towels or shopping bags as token gifts to coax people into answering the questions. Elsewhere, census takers have been allowed to call in the police if residents refuse to answer the door.” [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times November 10, 2010]

"Similar to the census process in the United States, most people are given a standard form with a few basic questions: 18 of them centering on names, ages, occupation. Ethnicity is also asked, but not religion, that being a sensitive subject in a communist country that is officially atheist. One-tenth of the population, meanwhile, was selected for a longer, 45-question form that includes queries about income, savings, the type of water one drinks (tap or boiled) and the number of bathrooms in the house.”

Census workers were told things like: 1) cover your dirty shoes with plastic wrappers before entering homes as you provide reassurance that sensitive information — about residency permits or babies who violate China's one-child policy — will not be shared with other authorities; 2) beware of dogs.

Challenges for the 2010 Chinese Census Takers

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The life of a census taker was not easy. Their pay was about $150 for a month's work and many were bitten by dogs. In one neighborhood in the southern city of Guangzhou, 11 of 32 workers had quit by the third day of the census, according to the Southern Metropolis Daily newspaper.

After years of reforms that have reduced the government's once-pervasive involvement in most people's lives, some Chinese were reluctant to give up personal information, harboring suspicions about what the government planned to do with the information The reluctance to cooperate was even as basic as not wanting to open doors to a stranger. "I live by myself, no way would I open the door to a stranger. Maybe I'd open the door if it were a woman, but if it were a man, definitely not. Safety first, right?" 25-year-old real estate agent Yin Honglei told AP. [Source: Anita Chang, AP, September 3,2010]

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Difficulties in getting information are sometimes even greater in wealthy neighborhoods than in poor ones. A Chinese journalist who went out with census takers during a preliminary census in August reported that only one resident opened the door in a posh gated community of 39 villas in the suburbs of Beijing. Often nobody answered even though people could be seen behind closed curtains.” [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times November 10, 2010]

"The rich worry more about their privacy. They may have second or third homes or mistresses they're hiding away," Zhou Xiaozheng, a sociologist at Renmin University told the Los Angeles Times. "But it's true of ordinary people as well; they're not willing to cooperate with the government the way they used to in the old China."

2010 Census, One-Child Policy and Urban Migrant Population

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “In an effort to tally China's staggering migrant population, estimated at more than 200 million, census takers are seeking to count people where they live, rather than at the homes where they have their hukous, or residency permits. Until a decade ago, people who had moved to big cities without permits could be arrested and deported. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times November 10, 2010]

“Before the 10-day census, the Chinese government began a massive awareness ‘some might say propaganda — campaign. Large green banners garlanded across streets throughout the country read: "Conducting a census — establishing a harmonious society." In alleys near the Beijing South Railway Station, where migrants from the countryside live in housing not much larger than some American bathrooms, census takers make repeat visits at different times of the day, hoping to catch otherwise elusive residents by surprise. "They come sometimes at 10 p.m. to find us," said a woman from Anhui province who was washing clothes in an outdoor sink.

At a neighborhood committee office, a 64-year-old woman wearing a Mao Tse-tung button on her red jacket said that she had barely slept since the census started. "The population is so mobile. And some won't open the door. We just keep going back until we find them," she said.

“Another challenge for the census-takers are children born in violation of the country's urban one-child policy, many of whom are unregistered and therefore have no legal identity,” Anita Chang of AP wrote. “They could number in the millions. The government has said it would lower or waive the hefty penalty fees required for those children to obtain identity cards, though so far there has not been much response to the limited amnesty.” [Source: Anita Chang, AP, September 3,2010]

Many say they have been reassured by the government's declaration that information cannot be used to levy fines, which often run as high as six times an annual income for extra births."This is only about statistics, but people are worried that they could get fined for having an extra child and they'll avoid the census," Duan Chengrong, head of the population department at Renmin University told AP. "Like in the U.S., the Chinese these days are paying more attention to their privacy."

2010 Chinese Census, Dissidents and Privacy Issues

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Census takers offered stronger assurances that the information they collected would remain confidential. Data on family planning, taxes, landownership and residency permits are all, at least in theory, kept private by the census. "Along with China's development, the people's awareness of legal, personal and privacy rights has been increasing," Ji Lin, executive vice mayor of Beijing whose office is overseeing the census in the capital, told AP. "When we were little, it wasn't this way. If the police wanted to check hukous (Chinese household registration documents), they would just walk in with barely a knock. You can't do that anymore," he said. [Source: Anita Chang, AP, September 3,2010]

"Some people resist it because they may worry about how the information might be used by the government to investigate their wealth, for example, how many properties they have or perhaps they don't want their 'gray income' to become public. These people are often rich or corrupt," Liu Shanying, associate researcher with the Institute of Political Sciences at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told AP.

Some of the concerns it turns were may have been well-founded. The State Statistics Bureau used the census to examine the real estate market in parts of several cities to determine how many homes were purchased by speculators and are sitting empty, Xinhua reported. Also raising privacy concerns was the requirement for people who buy new cell phone numbers to register their personal details. Authorities say they have their sights on rampant junk messages — but some believe the government will use the new tool for monitoring its citizens.

AP reported at least one dissident was taken away by police who came knocking on the pretext that they were there to conduct a pre-census check. Xie Zhaoping, who recently published a book criticizing a forced relocation project in Shaanxi province, was knocked to the ground, handcuffed and taken away by seven plainclothes police, wife Li Qiong told AP. They had pounded on the door and said they were there to check hukou information.

China Population Census official Gu Yili brushed aside questions about concerns over improper use of census information or other potential violations of personal rights. Nearly everyone is supportive of the census because they know it's necessary for setting government policy in the years to come, she told AP. "The government needs an accurate figure to make appropriate policy and people need to cooperate. It's in the best interest of ordinary people," she said, working one recent morning in a Beijing neighborhood of traditional courtyard homes, making sure volunteers were giving out copies of confidentiality agreements and putting blue nylon covers over their shoes before entering homes. "The census is for the public," she said.

2000 Chinese Census

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one child policy poster
The fifth Chinese census was conducted in 2000. It counted 1.26 billion people, 132 million more than the 1990 census. Six million canvassers (double the number of soldiers in the People's Liberation Army) covered the entire country in 10 days. They knocked on the doors of 350 million dwelling, climbed mountains and checked in caves, rode horses in Inner Mongolia to seek out nomads and went shack to shack in urban camps trying to count migrant workers.

An army of 5.2 million canvassers (equal to the number of people in Denmark) was used to take the 1982 Chinese census, which counted 1,008,174,288 people, an increase of more 300 million people over the previous census in 1964. The first census was conducted in 1953. The 1990 census counted 1,133,682,501 people.

In the 2000 census, people were asked if they had a toilet, how many days a week they worked and whether they burned gas, wood or coal to heat their homes. Most importantly, perhaps, they were asked to provide honest answers on how many children they had and were promised by the government they would suffer no consequences if they had more children than they were supposed to. The government wanted also to get accurate numbers on China's "floating population" of laborers.

The statistical variation used when calculating the population of China is greater than the entire population of the United States. Many think that statistics are not accurate and that China is really home to over 1.5 billion people. If that is true then there are 200 million people — two thirds of the pollution of the United States — running around that are not accounted for.

Lack of Censuses and Statistics in 19th Century China

In 1899, Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: “The traveller in China, constantly surrounded by countless towns and hamlets, naturally thirsts to know in a general way the population of the region which he is traversing. Should he venture, however, to ask any one the number of people in a city, or the district which it governs, he would get no other information than that there are “not a few, ” or “who knows?” Almost any intelligent person could tell approximately how many villages there are in his own county, but as some of them are large and some small, and as Chinese like other Orientals care absolutely nothing for statistics and have the crudest notion of what we mean by an average, one is none the wiser for their information. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“It appears to be well settled that no real dependence can be placed upon the Chinese official returns, yet that they are the only basis upon which rational estimates can be based, and therefore have a certain value. So far as we are aware, efforts to come at the real population per square mile, have generally proceeded from such extensive units as provinces, or at least prefectures, the foundation and superstructure being alike a mere pagoda of guesses.

“Some years ago an effort was made in a certain district to make a more exact computation of the population of a very limited area, as a sort of unit of measure. For this purpose a circle was taken, the radius of which was twenty li, the foreign residence being at the centre. A list was drawn up of every village having received famine relief in the year 1878, so that it was not difficult to make a proximate guess at the average number of families. The villages were 150 in number, and the average size was taken as eighty families, which, reckoning five persons to the family, gave a total of 60, 000 persons. Allowing six miles to be the equivalent of twenty li, the population of the square mile would be 531, about the same as the average of the kingdom of Belgium (the most densely populated country in Europe), which had in 1890 an average of only 534 to the square mile.

“At a distance of a few miles beyond this circle, there is a tract called the “Thirteen Villages, ” because that is the number within a distance of five li! This shows that the particular region in which this estimate was made, happens to be an unfavorable one for the purpose, as a considerable part of it is waste, owing to an old bed of the Yellow River which has devastated a broad band of land, on which are no villages. There is also a water-course leading from the Grand Canal to the sea, and a long depression much below the general average, thinly occupied by villages, because it is liable to serious inundation.

“For these reasons it seemed desirable to make a new count in a better spot, and for this purpose a district was chosen, situated about ninety li east of the sub-prefecture of Lin Ch‘ing, to which it belongs. The area taken was only half the size of the former, and instead of merely estimating the average population of the villages, the actual number of families in each was taken, so far as this number is known to the natives. The man who prepared the village map of the area is a native of the central village, and a person of excellent sense. He put the population in every case somewhat below the popular estimate so as to be certainly within bounds. The number of persons to a “family” was still taken at five, though, as he pointed out, this is a totally inadequate allowance. Many “families” live and have all things in common, and are therefore counted as one, although as in the case of this particular individual, the “family” may consist of some twenty persons. To the traveller in this region, the villages appear to be both large and thickly clustered, and the enumeration shows this to be the case. Within a radius of ten li (three miles) there are sixty-four villages, the smallest having thirty families and the largest more than 1, 000, while the average is 188 families. The total number of families is 12, 040, and the total number of persons at five to the family, is 60, 200, or more than double the estimate for the region with twice the diameter. This gives a population of 2, 129 to the square mile.

“So far as appearances go, there are thousands of square miles in southern and central Chih-li, western and southwestern Shandong, and northern Henan, where the villages are as thick as in this one tract, the contents of which we are thus able proximately to compute. But for the plain of North China as a whole, it is probable that it would be found more reasonable to estimate 300 persons to the square mile for the more sparsely settled districts, and from 1, 000 to 1, 500 for the more thickly settled regions. In any case a vivid impression is thus gained of the enormous number of human beings crowded into these fertile and historic plains, and also of the almost insuperable difficulties in the way of an exact knowledge of the facts of the true “census.

Image Sources: Maps, University of Texas; Census poster, Landsberger Posters http://www.iisg.nl/~landsberger/; People by Age Group, BBC

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2021

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