What Does the New Census Data Tell Us About China’s Future?

Recently, partial results of the 6th national population census of China, launched on November 2010, were published.

The numbers show that China went through huge changes since the last census 10 years ago. And some of those changes, experts say, may lead to huge challenges.

Summary from AP:

Six million newcomers, mostly migrant workers from elsewhere in China, have moved to Beijing in the past decade and pushed its population to nearly 20 million people.

The census conducted last year showed Beijing’s population up 44.5 percent from the 2000 census.

The change reflects a trend of China becoming more urban.

49.7 percent of China’s population now lives in cities, compared to about 36 percent 10 years ago.

The migrant population in general has increased by 117 million people.

Where is everybody going, and why?

We spoke with Cai Yong, an assistant professor at the Department of Sociology at the University of North Carolina. Here is what he told us over the phone:

To put it simply, China has been moving for the last 20 years more and more to the urban area. And the census for the first time revealed that half of the Chinese now are living in an urban area. And this is historic.

China’s population, if we look across provinces, is concentrated in about 5 provinces: Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Guangdong and Zhejiang. Those are the most economy-dynamic [regions]. And the total population in those areas account over 50% of the population growth in the last 10 years.

So basic economy and urbanization is driving the migration and the population growth in China right now. That has a profound effect on the Chinese society and family.

 200 million migrants going back to their families only during holidays (Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

Institutional barrier forces 200 million migrants to live without their families

The Chinese society still has…household registration systems. There are two tiers of citizens in China.

There is a two-tier system in China: those people with official house hold registration in urban area, and those without. [For those without], their total number is about 200 million. And because [they are] migrants, they don’t have direct access to the social resources in urban areas.

So in terms of family life, separation is a very common phenomenon.

They [migrants] work in urban areas, but they usually don’t go back to visit their family, only during holidays. They leave their parents and their children behind, in rural areas. If you go to rural areas in China now, what’s left there are mostly elderly and children.

So what we commonly regard as basic family life— you live together with the family— it’s almost a luxury for many migrants in China, because they cannot afford [it]. There is no social support behind that.

And that means that the stress level and the financial burden is also very high, for both—those so-called migrants who are in the urban area, and those who [are] left behind.

Everyone wants to live together with his family. But because of this institutional barrier, because of lack of social protection, they cannot.

So people are calling for the Chinese government to tear down the wall. Basically, there is invisible wall between rural and urban China. Technically people can move across the wall, but they have to leave many things behind, including family members.

I think the biggest responsibility of the government is to promote equality… they should not discriminate one group against the other.

The household registration system, it has been there for about 50-some years, they should at least tear down some of the barriers that prevent rural people from settling down in the urban areas.

Second, they should provide service. In Beijing, there are many migrants that try to bring their kids into the urban area, but they could not enroll into the urban schools. There are some schools specially set up for migrants [that] have been established by social welfare and some NGOs, but the government is not supportive of these kind of programs.

So I think the government needs to change the mindset from someone who provides only administrative service to a service provider, helping people to adapt and to get into the urban area, to settle down.

How does migration affect the traditional Chinese family structure?

Assistant professor Cai Yong:

To put it in simple numbers, only 10 years ago, the average Chinese family size was measured at 3.44 people per household. Basically it’s kind of a nuclear family plus something. And now, according to 2010 Census, the average family size has declined down to 3.1.

In just 10 years, the family size on average has shrunk by 10%. That’s partially because fertility is going down. But more importantly, there are more and more people moving. They don’t live with their family; they don’t live with their parents. Sometimes they don’t live with their spouses, their children. So, in normal situations we won’t call that a “family” to start with. It’s not a normal family.

And indeed, the Chinese people have very strong family values to start with. They value the family highly, and family unity is viewed as most important. In agricultural society [all the life] activity happened within the family.

And Chinese still view family as a unit of social mobility. If someone moves up in the social ladder, he has the responsibility to care for [his] family members.

So with this migration coming to play, more and more people are moving to urban areas, but they have to leave behind their children or their elderly parents. That’s clearly not a desirable situation.


1 Comment

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One response to “What Does the New Census Data Tell Us About China’s Future?

  1. Skye O'Shea

    Hi there,
    I live in Australia but have spent 8 months in Xian teaching English. One of the Chinese teachers told me that they only see their son on holidays and I found that so terrible. I would like to know if Chinese parents only visit their children on holidays because it is very difficult for them to be able to take time off from work or if they simply can’t afford it.
    Do you have any idea how something could be set up so that parents could be funded with enough money to be able to go home and see their families more often? I know that we are talking about a huge number of people but do you have any information that would help me?

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