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The family goes nuclear: Chinese birthrates have defied the one-child policy, with up to 30 per cent of births uncounted (photo: REX_SHUTTERSTOCK)

Beijing is Brobdingnag peopled by Lilliputians. The superhuman scale of its buildings and public spaces, starting with the Great Hall of the People abutting Tiananmen Square, is calculated to overwhelm rather than uplift. Its main urban arteries are freeways that pedestrians can traverse only by bridge, with businesses displaced onto access roads. People dress to blend in, not to stand out. The surface impression reinforces every Western prejudice about conformist, colourless China. But the first impression is woefully wrong.
The real China is found in families. The most salient social fact about China is the resilience of family ties. During the past 35 years, 500 million Chinese have moved from countryside to city, the near equivalent of the whole population of Europe from the Urals to the Atlantic. To house them, China has built the equivalent of a new Europe — a new Naples, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Kiev, Lyon and so forth. Chinese families are flung across the world’s second-largest country by surface area. But during the great internal migration around the week-long Lunar New Year holiday, the Chinese undertake an estimated 3.6 billion journeys, many lasting for days, to reach an annual family reunion. In public the Chinese may be cautious and reserved, but among family they are unrestrained, even raucous. 

One of China’s great mysteries stems from the great wall between public and private life: no one knows how many Chinese there are, and estimates by competent academics differ by hundreds of millions. Families, especially those in rural areas, flouted the one-child policy introduced in 1980, lying to local party officials, who in turn lied to the central government. Despite the Communist Party’s ruthless efforts to suppress population growth, China’s families offered resistance on a scale that distorts the country’s demographic data. The most common estimate for China’s fertility rate is 1.6 births per woman, but credible estimates range from 1.3 births up to 2.2 births, higher than in any industrial country except Israel.

The upper range of fertility estimates for China may seem improbable, but they stem from comparing official birth statistics to elementary school enrolment data. A respected Chinese demographer, Liang Zhongtang, reckoned the fertility rate to be 2.3 between 1982 and 2000 and at 2.1, still just above replacement, in 2005. According to Dr Liang, “If the 2000 census count were to be adjusted using historic data on elementary school enrolments, the total population that the 2000 census should have enumerated can be estimated at 1.31 billion (assuming a 1.8 per cent undercount rate) or 1.30 billion (assuming no undercount). By calculating on the basis of the 2000 general census data, of 1.266 billion, the average overall female fertility for the years 1982-2000 was 2.3 children per woman. If calculated on the basis of a population of about 1.3 billion, the overall female fertility averaged over 2.3 children per woman.” And Bingham Kennedy of the Population Reference Bureau noted, “One 1995 conference of Chinese demographers concluded that an average of 30 percent of births were going uncounted at that time.”

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June 25th, 2015
6:06 PM
A fascinating feature but picture is a little skewed by saying "in other countries fertility plunges to levels that lead to national extinction within a century". Are you sure of that? As long as some people have children and life expectancy is high enough, extinction is simply impossible! That's the beauty of exponential decay, the model we have in mind when quoting any fertility 'rate'. It parallels many natural processes that havea 'half-life'. Changes in the population level come down in proportion with the level itself. So it will never hit zero.

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