Deferred Results: China’s Seventh National Population Census

Every ten years the Chinese government dispatches teams of census takers throughout the country to compile data on its population. Accurate information about the people who live in the country is vital for any state, but it is particularly important for the Chinese system with its party-state structure and five-year plan system. Knowing the country’s demographic makeup – how many people live where, what their age distribution is, what household incomes look like, their level of education – is key to designing effective policy.

Even with modern tools, collecting accurate information about the population is an enormous undertaking requiring huge amounts of effort. In November of last year Beijing launched its seventh national census, sending out some 7 million surveyors to canvass every corner of the country. Yet despite this veritable army of census takers, the preliminary results of the census were delayed, only being published on May 11th, even though they had originally been scheduled for publication in early April. While the authorities would likely want to be as thorough and accurate as possible in publishing its finding, there are political factors that have delayed publication.

Demographic Dividend

China has entered the popular imagination as the site of one of the most consequential efforts at demographic engineering in modern history: the One Child Policy. Although many countries have enshrined family planning measures in their governance, Beijing took it a step further by adopting a rash of measures to limit the number of births through contraception, abortion, and sterilization, as well as adopting an enforcement mechanism largely built upon fines for families that exceeded the birth limit.

Introduced across the country in 1980, the One Child Policy is closely linked to the reforms of Deng Xiaoping that would set the stage for China’s economic transformation. The reduction in birth rates helped combat poverty and raise income per capita, while at the same time fundamentally altering ideas about family and society on a massive scale. Forty years on, however, China’s leaders are beginning to show signs of anxiety about the resulting population imbalance. As more people begin to retire the workforce is starting to shrink, raising serious questions about the social system’s ability to care for the greying population – a development that is particularly irksome for an avowedly socialist state.

In an effort to respond to the changed demographic landscape the authorities have adopted new laws and regulations. In 2016 the One Child Policy was effectively repealed, replaced by a “Two Child Policy.” However, while some officials might have hoped the removal of barriers would lead to the birth rate increasing, family patterns have significantly changed since the 1970s. Increasingly Chinese women are choosing to start families later in life, with many couples preferring to have only one child for structural reasons – such as the high cost of education and housing. This change has serious implications for China’s future and the CCP’s plans.

Some have speculated that the delay in publishing the findings of the 2020 census was driven by anxieties over results that indicate the population is contracting more rapidly than expected. The National Statistics Bureau (NSB) may have been reluctant to publish key results until the plethora of affected government agencies have had a chance to review and interpret the data. In the Leninist political culture of China achieving consensus on how to present and respond to information is vital, and it is possible that the NSB’s silence masks an intense debate taking place behind closed doors. Ultimately the preliminary findings published this week indicate the population overall is still growing, albeit slowly. There may, however, be another more troubling reason that delayed the publication of the latest census.

An Inconvenient Truth

In his seminal work on the modern Nation State, Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson lists the census as one of the tools states use to shape knowledge to their purposes. Anderson’s argument centers on the power of the state in defining ethnic categories to neatly divide a given population into units, an idea which was particularly prevalent in Marxist-Leninist doctrine. Like many Communist countries, the early PRC sought to recognize and extend legal status to 55 minorities in addition to the Han Chinese majority. Particularly in Western China, where non-Mandarin speaking people with their own cultural, linguistic, and religious traditions predominated this process culminated in the creation of Autonomous Regions.

More recently these areas have been subjected to harshly repressive policies, particularly the north-western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) where a sprawling series of internment camps has sprung up in recent years. Chinese officials have claimed these camps serve the purpose of providing educational opportunities and poverty relief for minority populations that would otherwise be vulnerable to radicalization. However, a growing body of evidence suggests that the practice of interning Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim groups, such as Chinese Kazakhs, is part of a policy to quash any kind of separatist aspiration by eradicating minority groups as distinct entities. While Beijing rejects claims of crimes against humanity as slanderous meddling in its internal affairs, there have been several reports about forced labor, sexual violence, torture, and other forms of inhumane treatment.

Some have gone so far as to accuse the Chinese government of committing acts of genocide against the Uyghurs and others. One of the final acts of the outgoing Trump administration was to declare Chinese policy in Xinjiang constitutes genocide – a stance the incoming Biden administration has since confirmed. Other governments have since followed suit, with the parliaments of Canada, the UK, and the Netherlands adopting non-binding measures finding that the treatment of Uyghurs and other minorities meets the criteria for genocide under the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (genocide Convention for short). Needless to say, Chinese diplomats and officials have vehemently denied that any such action is taking place.

Many feel uncomfortable invoking the term genocide, particularly as the term is weighed down by historical legacies such as the paroxysms of violence witnessed during the Holocaust or the Armenian Genocide. But it is important to keep in mind that the Genocide Convention – of which the Chinese government is a signatory – lists five actions as constituting genocide. In addition to the wholesale killing of a group, the convention explicitly outlines preventing births within a group or forcible transferring children from members of one group to another as violations. It is these latter two criteria which form the foundations of the case against Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang.

Adrian Zenz, a German researcher who has consistently published studies on repressive policies in the XUAR over the past couple of years, published a report last summer outlining efforts to deliberately lower the birth rate among minorities. Zenz’ findings that the natural birth rate among minority people in Xinjiang as precipitously declined has informed much of the debate outside of China. Within China, state media have sought to discredit Zenz, with the nationalist tabloid the Global Times, running articles which argue that rather than having decreased, China’s Uyghur population has actually increased – citing data from the Xinjiang Statistical Yearbook. This preferred narrative allows for a slowing down in the overall growth rate, but attributes this to a greater application of family planning policies – which permits members of ethnic minorities to have two or even three children.

One of the functions of the National Census has historically been to not only measure the age and distribution of the population but also determine the share of ethnic minorities in a region. It is quite possible that census takers sent to Xinjiang will have found that there has been a relative decline among Uyghurs and other minority people. Even should claims of deliberate, province-wide efforts by the authorities to sterilize minority women prove to be exaggerated, the sweeping internment, policies of housing Han officials in Uyghur families, and a pervasive atmosphere of fear do not create an ideal environment for people to want to start families and have children.

Perhaps one reason for the authorities’ reluctance to publish the findings of the seventh national census is an unwillingness to provide information which puts the lie to Beijing’s preferred narrative and strengthens the claims of its critics abroad. At a press conference presenting a summary of the data collected by the National Statistics Bureau, and in a subsequent communique, officials stressed that the total number of China’s ethnic minority people had increased by about 10 percent, significantly above the Han majority population’s increase of 5 percent. However, the preliminary findings refrain from breaking down the overall number of minority people and the assertion that “[t]he steady increase of the population of the ethnic groups fully reflected the comprehensive development and progress of all ethnic groups under the leadership of the Communist Party of China” can certainly be read as defensive.

Whatever the case may be researchers and informed readers around the world should take note of China’s national census and read its findings closely. While the fate of the peoples of Xinjiang may not hinge on a single report, their demographic future remains uncertain.