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Demography is Destiny

China’s regional demographics

China’s regional demographics

by Marcus Roberts | December 13, 2018

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The difficulty of running a country as large and as populous as China must be immense. The country’s long history is one of centripetal forces (a strong central government) battling against the centrifugal forces of distance, regional variations and ethnic differences. In that light, the centralising tendencies of the current Xi Presidency can be seen, in part, as an attempt to counteract the economic variations of the Chinese regions. In general, ione can see in China a distinction between the richer, outwardly focussed littoral, containing the global cities of Shanghai and Hong Kong, and the poorer, more rural interior regions.

To the economic regional variances can be added the differing effects of the one child policy on each region’s demography. The last census (in 2010) reported an overall fertility rate in the Middle Kingdom of 1.2, well below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman. However, this overall low rate is not uniform throughout the country – there are wide variations between the regions. Beijing for example has a total fertility rate of only 0.71 while the other end of the scale is the southern province of Guangxi, on the border of Vietnam, with a fertility rate of 1.79 (still well below the replacement rate).

One of the main reasons for this regional variation is that the application of the one-child policy was not uniform. For example, the western part of China, Xinjiang, is home to Tibetans and Uighurs and was never subject to the one-child policy. Minorities as a whole (8 per cent of China’s total population) had greater leeway under the policy. Minorities in urban residences were permitted two children; those in rural areas could have four or more.

Generally, the Chinese population can be split into four regional demographic categories. The low fertility area includes the three mega-cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin and the north-eastern “rust belt” of Manchuria. This area was where the one-child policy was applied the most strictly; it contains about 170 million Chinese.

The middle demographic category/area contains the littoral provinces and 600 million people. It has experienced fast economic growth and mass urbanisation.

The third category contains the mixed ethnic groups living just inside the littoral, like the Henan, Anhui and Hunan. This category contains few urban dwellers and contains 460 million people.

The final category contains the “largest composite mix of migrating ethnicities” which tends to be rural and live in regions like Guangxi which have high fertility rates. This category has 120 million people in it.  

In addition to the fertility differences, each region’s economic fortunes also affect social and demographic regional volatility. For instance, there has been strong migration into the Chinese littoral for work. This means that the Chinese government must deal with an ageing population at different speeds throughout the different provinces. This is important because local administrators in a rapidly ageing region are responsible for a heavy burden of sourcing replacement workers and at the same time contributing to higher fixed pension costs.

While the mega-cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin have low fertility, this has been offset because of its ability to attract younger workers into higher paying jobs. Domestic migration means that these three cities have a population growth rate of three per cent per year.

On the other hand, high fertility rural areas have the opposite problem: high domestic migration which makes it hard to keep the workers required to support locally serviced pensions. Domestic migration has meant that the northeast of China has suffered a net outflow of over 2 million workers. This area implemented the one-child policy most ruthlessly and has seen its previously successful state-owned coal and steel mills collapse.

All of this has made it hard for Beijing to narrow the economic and political differences between the provinces in order to forestall internal breakup. Once again, the poisoned fruit of the one-child policy have spread far.

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