China delays census release in bid to buy time for data adjustment: expert

2021.05.06

The weeks-long delay of China’s population census results is likely due to a new low in birth rate and inconsistency with past data, said a well-known demographer.

Issuing a one-line press statement last week, the National Bureau of Statistics insisted China’s population has increased in 2020, after the Financial Times reported the first population decline in five decades. Authorities have postponed the release of the results since early April, citing an increase in preparatory work.

The delay suggests the results of the latest census, completed in December 2020, are not in line with officials’ expectations, said Yi Fuxian, a statistician at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Both the number of new births and total population could be lower than expected, he added.

Over years of research, Yi found that government agencies, including the National Health and Family Planning Commission and local education departments, have consistently exaggerated the numbers of the population in order to obtain more resources and funding.

According to his estimation, which is based on social indicators such as marriage, medical services and education, China’s total population in 2020 is below 1.28 billion.

A bigger issue, however, is the authorities’ adjustment of the data to fit their political agenda, said Yi.

2011 was a significant turning point in the Chinese economy as the labor force – a key engine of economic growth – began to shrink. A rapidly aging population can curtail Beijing’s goal to replace the United States as the biggest economy in the world in 15 years, Yi added.

“By 2030, the median age of China’s population would reach 49, while that of the U.S. is 42. It will be a competition between an elderly China and a middle-aged U.S. The economic distance will only grow,” he projected.

Yi expected Beijing to take drastic measures in the face of a demographic crisis and officially end its policy on birth planning. Yet even if China lifts all birth restrictions, the birth rate is unlikely to increase, the demographer added.

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