China has long had too large a population, but it was stable for more than a millennium. In 1 BCE, China had 86 million people. 1,000 years later, there were only another million more Chinese.
From 1000, China’s growth was tepid: less than 0.4% every century. There were 268 million Chinese in 1800.
In 1900, China’s population was 415 million. By 1950, just after the Communists took power in 1949, there were 550 million Chinese.
At first, the Communist government was ideologically disposed to view the large population as an asset. It quickly changed its mind.
A mass birth-control effort was attempted in 1956, to little effect. In the early 1960s, a more concerted push was made, which was successful in urban areas, before the onset of the political turmoil that came with the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). The Party restarted its birth-control efforts in the early 1970s, sending doctors into rural areas to practice medicine and distribute contraceptives.
By 1979, birth control had evolved into an ambitious 1-child policy, which employed a combination of education, social pressure, and coercion, including forced sterilization and abortion. As before, urbanites were more inclined to limit family size than those in the countryside.
One side effect of the birth-control effort was to increase female feticide and infanticide. If only having 1 child, Chinese couples (at least the men) wanted a son. While killing baby girls has a long history in both China and India, China’s 1-child policy ratcheted up the slaughter among the Chinese. By 2010 there were 119 Chinese boys under 5 years of age for every 100 girls. China is missing more than 60 million females.
(The natural sex ratio is 105 boys to 100 girls. Males, being the weaker sex, are more likely to die young; so, by the time they reach reproductive age, the ratio of men and women balances out. Nature is a wondrous statistician.)
Whereas India has dowries, China has bride prices: a groom’s parents, not the bride’s, pay for the wedding, and give money and property to the marrying couple. Chinese bride prices shot up 100-fold from 2007 to 2017. A bride may cost the equivalent of 5 years of a respectable annual salary.
Many rural Chinese families have now come to view sons more as an economic burden than as security for their old age. Couples who failed to produce a boy decades ago, and endured the mockery of their neighbors, are having the last laugh.
China had 0.65 billion people in 1960. By 1982, there were over 1 billion Chinese. Population numbers have since continued to creep up: 1990 = 1.13 billion; 2000 = 1.27 billion; 2010 = 1.34 billion.
China’s recent population increment has been during a time of tremendous economic growth, which has historically been the cue for a baby boom. China defied a strong historical trend. But then, China was already heavily populated, and its late industrialization was breakneck.
Further, income inequality in China is among the highest in the world. In 2010, the top 10% of Chinese households garnered 57% of the country’s income.
This seems ironic for a supposedly communist country. But China has long been totalitarian without ever being egalitarian. The hard-edged self-interest of the Chinese people comes from millennia of living in a hierarchical, largely hardscrabble culture. Communism has been elitist monarchism under a different name.
The prospect for much further population increase in China is low. Instead, as China’s pollution approaches lethal levels in urban areas, and environmental quality of life otherwise declines, its population will winnow in the coming decades as a consequence.