David Cowhig: Liang Zhongtang on China’s Population and Fertility

Thanks to China analyst David Cowhig for sending following article to CDT:

In “Research on the Overall Population and Female Fertility in the Chinese Mainland During the Late Twentieth Century” (article translated below) Liang Zhongtang of the Shanxi Province People’s Government Economic Research Center in the 5/2003 issue of Shengcanli Yanjiju [Productivity Research] pp. 147 -158 examines why Chinese data on population, fertility and other population characteristics are so unreliable. Liang Zhongtang is a demographer who has worked on family planning issues since 1979. This article is available on Chinese scholarly databases such as CNKI.

[My comments: Liang’s argument sounds much like what I heard many Chinese demographers saying in the late 1990s. Some demographers including Zeng Yi of Peking University said that the 1990 census undercounted births by 25%. Many were quite angry that the central government was putting out very low even (to them) ridiculous numbers. See for example here and here.

See also Chinese language scholarly articles on the China Population and Development Research Center (a research organization under the PRC Family Planning Commission, in particular the article “Future Development of China’s Population and Fertility Policy”.

Also note the CPDRC table of China’s basic population statistics here. The figures on fertility after 1991 are omitted, most likely as Prof. Liang Zhongtang suggests in his article that the data is too unreliable. The uncertainty in the population data and the fertility level (although most PRC demographers estimate that current overall fertility is below the 2.1 replacement level) make it especially difficult to estimate when the Chinese population will stop growing. Even with fertility rates below the replacement level, the population can continue to grow for decades due to the age structure of the population, if the population has a high proportion of people in their reproductive years. The uncertainty about the numbers is nothing new, see for example here,

However, something worth keeping in mind when hearing statements from family planning officials. ]

Translation of Chinese abstract: The Chinese demographic community has for the past two decades focused much attention on what the Chinese population would be in the year 2000 and overall female fertility in the Chinese mainland. Ever since in the late 1970s family planning became a criterion by which local cadres are evaluated, a peculiar system of Chinese population statistics has emerged. Its distinguishing characteristic is that the each census always excludes the youngest age groups of the population. The 1.24261 billion reported by the general census of 2000 was actually lower than the population estimated by the sampling surveys of 1998 and 1999. This shows that the elimination of younger age groups from the enumerated population has already passed the point at which it can be adjusted for by the Chinese statistical system.

If the 2000 census count were to be adjusted using historic data on elementary school enrollments, the total population that the 2000 census should have enumerated can be estimated at 1.30885 billion (assuming a 1.8% undercount rate) or 1.29889 (assuming no undercount). By calculating on the basis of the 2000 general census data, of 1.26583 billion, the average overall female fertility for the years 1982 – 2000 was 2.3 children per woman. If calculated on the basis of a population of about 1.3 billion, the overall female fertility averaged over 2.3 children per woman.


My summary translation of the article: Liang’s bottom line is that China’s population figures are unreliable because of pressure on lower level cadres to meet family planning goals.

The result is faked population counts that result in a serious undercount of population, exaggeration of the already serious sex ratio imbalance and an underestimate of overall female fertility (total children per woman over a lifetime). PRC official figures put it currently at about 1.6 or so. Liang finds population data so unreliable, he says that what can say is that for the period 1980 – 2000, overall fertility averaged 2.3 or even higher if an adjustment is

made for the undercount. Currently, Liang guesses that total overall fertility is about or just below the replacement rate of 2.1, significantly higher than the official number.

The desire of people to limit their families in the market economy and not government pressure is very likely what produced the decline in Chinese fertilitiy seen over the past two-plus decades. [Note: At the October 1997 World Population Congress in Beijing in 1997, Peking University Professor and chief advisor to the Family Planning Commission made the same point. End note.]

Liang comments that for the first 30 years or so of the PRC, important ideas needed to understand population growth, such as how to calculate the effect of the age structure of the population (basically the proportion of people in their peak reproductive years) were not understood in China. Why? Not until the late 1970s was the “leftist error” that held “the more people the better” purged. Only with reform beginning in the late 1970s did China get a more scientific understanding of population growth. Liang noticed that China’s population growth rate fell considerably between a 1970 peak and the end of the 1970s before family planning policies were widely implemented around the country. With the implementation of family planning, large population undercounts, exaggerated sex ratio imbalances and underestimates of fertility became a permanent feature of Chinese censuses.

Why? Liang says that the population data came from part time cadres at the village level who had no legal constraints on them to keep them from cooking the data. Cadres who were evaluated according to their “achievements” naturally wanted to keep good news flowing upwards. Moreover, census counts and estimates were made by several different organizations — public security, family planning and the statistical organizations. The household registries became less and less reliable as people began to move more frequently. There appeared wide disparities in these counts, the family planning count was typically the lowest. These competing census also created pressures at the local level to produce numbers that were compatible with the other counts. The poor quality of Chinese census data was widely known, so attempts were made to get more frequent and more accurate data by annual sampling surveys. The 1:1000 sampling survey was done annually.

This really didn’t work — other countries uses sampling surveys between the general census and rely on the general census to produce more reliable data since the general census aims to be an exhaustive count. Although a general census is never an exhaustive count, still the principle in other countries is that the general census is used to get a clearer picture than the sampling survey. The sampling survey was not used, as it was in China, to correct the general census. However if the census has very serious problems, the data quality may not be better even after adjustments.

Author Liang Zhongtang recounts an incident in the early 1990s when Peng Peiyun, Chair of the Family Planning Commission asked him how to make Chinese census counts more accurate. “Make fewer census counts and China will have more accurate counts” replied Liang. China had more and more census counts but less and less accurate census counts from the late 1970s onwards. The pressure on officials to meet goals and the various competing counts created pressure on lower officials to fake numbers and on medium and higher level officials to pretend that they didn’t know what was going on.

Liang notes that there was a large undercount in the number of children born each year. Many of these children appeared later in the Ministry of Education counts for children entering elementary school each year. Chinese population data came to have the distinctive pattern of the number of children born in a certain year increase as they came to school age rather than showing a slight decline, as in other countries due to infant and child mortality. Chinese demographers, Liang notes, regularly used Ministry of Education elementary school enrollment figures to correct census data. Still, children who were not enrolled or enrolled and not counted would be missed. This systemtic problem of undercounting of the younger age groups appeared in the late 1970s and became steadily more serious. Comparing 1990s census data with education enrollment numbers several years late, it becomes clear, writes Liang that “the Chinese people, going about their daily lives and providing for the education of their children, did not suddenly reduce the number of children they sent to school. That is to say the dramatic drop in births seen after 1990, in the [sampling survey] counts of 1991 and 1992 never actually occurred. ”

The problem was more serious in the 2000 census that it was in the 1990 census. The 2000 census count was lower than the 1998 and 1999 sampling surveys. The 1.26 billion count year 2000 count might be reasonably adjusted to 1.30885 billion. But the real problem is that the peculiar Chinese statistical system can’t produce a reliable calculation of population or overall fertility for the year 2000. The average overall fertility 1980 – 2000 is 2.3 or perhaps higher. If the overall fertility was much lower than that in the 1990s, perhaps as low as 1.9, then the number would have to be considerably higher during the 1980s perhaps in about 2.7 or 2.8. Fertility rates are lower in the city, so rural fertility rates must be much higher. If some provinces report mostly one children per woman, than in other provinces more than 30% of the women must have three or more children.

Liang’s conclusion —

China’s population policy was formulated in a special era of transition in the late 1970s. It was the end of one era and the beginning of another. Only in such an era should such a “fundamental national policy” take form so quickly.

Comparing rates of change in population growth, a doubling from 500 million to 1 billion in the 30 years from 1950 – 1980. If 1970 is taken as a base year, going from 800 million 1970 to 1.3 billion in 2000, China’s population grew by just 60%. Such a rapid reduction in population growth has no precedent in human history.

In the 1980s, most parts of China implemented a one child policy and most believed that it was really true. According to the publications of some comrades, Chinese overall female fertility fell to the replacement level in 1991 and then to just 1.5 in 1995. Experience over the past thirty years shows that no matter what population policy is established, the lower level officials will send up figures that give the impression that the population is complying with the policy. Therefore most people believe that Chinese fertility is very low. The truth is that over the past thirty years China’s average fertility has been 2.3 children.

Over the past two decades, I have often thought about the effectiveness and limitations of family planning policy. In my book “Demography” (1983) I wrote “Population policy is an attempt by the State to regulate the population and to influence population processes. It is thus a kind of subjective social consciousness. Whether or not population policy can achieve its objective is determined by objective factors. Population development is largely decided by economic factors, therefore if a population policy is in harmony with economic laws and in line with population trends than it will be likely to succeed.” “We should not exaggerate the effectiveness of population policy. We should not believe that policy is all-powerful and can at will change the situation or development process of a population. In setting population policy, it should be suitable to socioeconomic development trends and to social policy in general. Population policy alone is not likely to succeed. Population policy is the product of certain social and economic conditions and can only be effective based upon socioeconomic fundamentals. An population policy without a socioeconomic basis cannot succeed and its effectiveness will not extend beyonds its socioeconomic basis.”

Just how effective is a policy of compulsion? That is an old, very controversial question. As Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen said, “That is a question upon which opinion is very divided”. By compulsion here I don’t mean the vulgar compulsion of illegal and violent family planning measures that have been taken in some places since both the Communist Party and the State are opposed to grassroots cadres using a “simplified working style” [zuofeng jiandanhua].

The compulsion I am discussing is the the entire system based upon state laws and regulations. That is to say, is it really necessary for the state to tell each family how many children they can have and when they can have them? Is it really necessary for women to have the permission of the state to have children? Marriage and birth have traditionally been the affair of individuals and families. From the standpoint of law, having children belongs to the sphere of private life. The state and public power normally do not intrude and avoid that sphere. In developed countries, for example in Europe, women began to reduce their fertility early in the 19th century despite the strong objections of the religious authorities. Ever since, the authorities in those countries have been concerned about fertility but still have never intervened.

Amartya Sen has pointed out several examples of countries that rapidly reduced their fertility without state compulsion. One of his examples was the Indian state of Kerala which has a population of 29 million from an overall fertility rate of 3.0 in 1979 to 1.78 in 1995. During the same period Chinese overall fertility fell from 2.8 to 1.9.

I would also point out that China’s overall fertility fell from 6.0 in 1970 to 2.8 in less than a decade with nearly no compulsion at all. Liang saw this rapid decline first hand leading a work brigade for two years during the mid seventies in a rural county. The decline in fertility was faster during that decade without compulsion then in the suceeding two with compulsion.

Experience shows that the only effect a strict family planning policy is that the number of births reported will decline and the peasants will have just the number of children that they want to have. The question comes down to is why have children? Is it for the needs of the people in their own lives is it for the sake of the government? I believe that family planning is the outgrowth of the transformation of every day life that came with the industrial revolution. This family planning lifestyle is more suitable to the needs of individuals than the traditional way of having many children or as many as you can.

Therefore, when social development has reached a certain point, most people will voluntarily want to control the size of their families. This is because the industrial revolution raised living standards, lowered death rates (especially infant mortality) and extended lifespans. Social trends including equality of the sexes, increased education, and other trends reinforce the desire for voluntary family planning.

We are in the midst of a transtion from the planned economy to the market economy. It may be that some theoretical justification can be found for state interference in the reproductive decisions of citizens in a planned economy. But now we are in transition to the market economy. The government needs to change its functions and returns the individual rights over matters of marriage and reproduction to citizens.

Does this mean that there is no role for family planning? Not at all. If we think of family planning as a modern lifestyle, than everyone has a natural instinct for accepting this modern lifestyle. Therefore, as the government of a modern state, the government must make the transition from directly managing the fertility decisions of its citizens to providing public services for limiting fertility. There is still great scope for family planning in that sense.

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