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China revises upward population data for past 10 years

Sampling errors led to underestimates in number of births, authorities say

BEIJING -- The National Bureau of Statistics of China has revised its figures for past 10 years to note that the country's population surpassed 1.4 billion in 2017, two years earlier than previously thought. 

The recalculations were made based on the 2020 census, which found there was an "an error in the sampling for 2011 through 2019" and resulted in upward revisions for the population each year. China's leadership under President Xi Jinping has become increasingly anxious about the country's declining birthrate and aging population, but doubts persist about the accuracy of the data used by policymakers.

The changes were revealed in a document published by the statistics bureau in May. The total populations for both 2014 and 2015 were revised upward by 8.64 million, and each year from 2017 to 2019 was revised upward by 10.03 million. The revisions appear mechanical, and they are undeniably unnatural. As a result, the population reached more than 1.4 billion in 2017.

The changes resulted from an increase in the number of births. There were about 10 million more births between 2011 and 2019 than previously thought, according to authorities. Of these, 8.9 million -- nearly 90% of the upward revision -- happened between 2011 and 2014. That means there were actually more births before Beijing ended its one-child policy in 2016.

Sampling surveys are more prone to misestimates than full surveys. Overestimates or underestimates are both possible depending on how samples are taken. The National Bureau of Statistics revised upward both the total population and the number of births in all years.

The 2020 census, released in May, highlighted the reality of China's falling birthrate and aging population. The number of people age 65 and older increased by 60% over the past 10 years, and they now account for 13.5% of the population. China will soon become an "aging society," which is defined in international standards as having an elderly population that is more than 14% of the total population.

The number of workers and children in China will continue to decline. The number of births fell to 12 million in 2020, the fourth consecutive annual drop. That is almost the same level as in 1961 (11.97 million), China's record low. The ratio of births to total population was 0.852%, the first time it has fallen below 1%.

The natural rate of population growth, which is the number of births minus the number of deaths, was 0.145%. That is the lowest since 1960, when the Great Leap Forward led to many deaths by starvation and the natural growth rate was negative. The Global Times, a media outlet affiliated with the Communist Party, said Chinese demographers expect the total population to begin to drop in 2022.

Xi and other leaders are increasingly concerned that the declining birthrate, aging population and looming demographic decline will hinder economic growth and the expansion of China's global influence. The Politburo on May 31 decided to allow couples to have a third child. Officials are also rushing to implement greater support for child care, including more day care and maternity leave, as well as bolstering related insurance systems.

To cope with the aging population, the government is working on social security and pension reforms. It also plans to raise the statutory retirement age, a move that has been consistently opposed by the general public. The goal is to reduce the burden on the social security system and increase the number of workers.

Developing a comprehensive national strategy to address the declining birthrate and aging population requires analysis that is based on accurate statistical data. Accurate population statistics are particularly important in China to assess the impact of the country's long-standing one-child policy and the easing of birth restrictions in 2016. A significant revision in one direction, such as a large increase in the total population or the number of births, not only deepens doubt about the accuracy of the data, but could also distort mid- to long-term population policies.

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