Peoples of China

China's Changing Population

Dr. Nicholas Eberstadt, of the American Enterprise Institute, paints a bleak picture of the demographic challenges that China faces, highlighting three.

First of all, the fertility rate is now below replacement, meaning that by 2015 the aggregate size of the working population will begin to shrink. The working age population (15-64 years) will top out at one billion in 2015, with 20 percent being between the ages of 15 and 24 and decline thereafter through the mid 2020s. Given the fact that China's economic development and growth is built on its huge labor force, this could lead to massive economic disruption and is one of the reasons that China must restructure its economy.

Second, China is experiencing a population explosion among the elderly (65+). Due to the shrinking working population, however, these elderly will be supported by fewer people, and by extension, less government money. By 2020, the elderly will account for 17 percent of China's population (approximately 243 million people). Eberstadt predicts that by 2020 thirty percent of women who are 60 or older will have no born sons. In a society where the sons have traditionally had primary responsibility for taking care of the elderly, the implications of this are immense.

The third major demographic challenge is sex ratio imbalance. A sex ratio of 105 male births to 100 female births is normally required to maintain demographic stability, but China's official ratio now stands at 119:100, with some provinces having even more drastic imbalances. Jiangxi is thought to be at 130:100 and Jilin Province at 120:100.[1] It does not take a lot of imagination to picture the instability that will be fostered in a society where potential wives for so many young men simply do not exist.

In addition, an estimated 60-65 percent of China's peoplenearly one billionwill live in cities. These cities will be growing by around 30 million people per year, 25 million of which will be due to rural-urban migration. Most of the 200-250 million peasant migrants will live in the Pearl River Delta, with lesser concentrations in the Yangtze River Delta, Fuzhou, Jinan, Shandong, Beijing, Kunming and Chongqing. The demographic trajectory between now and 2020 is quite clear. By 2010, China will be half urban and half rural, climbing to 56 percent urban by 2015. The floating population will pass 200 million by 2009, 250 million by 2013, and approach 300 million by 2016.

Image credit: 400_3489 by bricoleurbanism, on Flickr


  1. ^ Eberstadt, Nicholas. Presentation at the National Bureau of Asian Research conference, "China 2020: Future Scenarios, Arlie Center, Virginia, February 2007.

Kay Danielson

Kay Danielson (pseudonym) has lived and worked in China for over 25 years. She currently works in the field of cross-cultural training and consulting. View Full Bio