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Geography Population China Case Study

China Population Case study

Context    Birth Rates and control      Death Rates    Migration

Background data – 2009 CIA fact book

Total population


Birth rate

Death Rate

Infant Mortality  Rate per 1000

Number of people per doctor

%  0-14

% 65+

Dependency Ratio

Population growth rate

Migration ratemigrant(s)/1,000 population

Life expectancy

Fertility rate

Male –female ratio

1,338 million













1.1 males to females


China has been the world’s most populous country for centuries and today makes up one-fifth of the world’s population. The country’s population of 1.3 billion in the early 2000s is projected to grow by another 100 million by 2050. India—with its higher fertility levels - is forecast to move ahead of China in total population size by 2035. China covers about the same geographic area as the United States, although its population is nearly five times greater. In addition, because of rugged mountains in the west and vast desert areas in central China, the population is concentrated within a surprisingly small area along the East and South.

Birth rate trends and management

Fertility rates have been slashed in China in one of the most ambitious state attempts to control population growth.  The government feared a looming crisis in the 1960s where every 3 years another 55million people where added top the population. The government feared a Malthusian crisis where population growth would completely outstrip resource availabillity.  They launched into China’s now famous one child policy in 1979, after Chinese demographer Liu Zeng calculated China’s OPTIMUM population at 700million.  The government set the limit at one child per family – a total fertility rate of 1! The state offered inducements for having only one child such as;

Free education

Priority housing


Child care

Family benefits

They also had a rigorous range of punishments if the on child rule was flouted (which it clearly was, look at the fertility graph, it never reaches 1!) including;

Losing all of the benefits listed above

Fines of up to 15% of the families income

In addition, couples could only marry at 22 for a man and 20 for a woman, and had to apply to the state for permission to first marry and then have a child.  This reduces the reproductive “lifespan” of that couple. 

The policy courted lots of controversy, and China’s imbalance in male to female ratio is evident in the figures about China’s population.  It was claimed in the South China post that once couples knew the sex of a baby some would abort if it was a girl.  This is known as female infanticide.  This is because the Chinese value males in their society more than females because they carry the family name. 

It has been documented that some women were forced into having abortions if they conceived a second child, and persistent offenders were offered sterilisation. The local factories and communities also had the granny police – who monitored and spied on prospective mothers. This policy was not enforced in the same manner across China, and in some areas it was possible to have more than one child, particularly in rural areas where children were  needed to work on farmers.

This policy has had huge social ramifications for China – yes it has reduced the population growth, but there have been many secondary problems emanate from the policy.  One, it has led to the phenomenon of “Little Emporers”, spoilt single children who get everything they want!  It has also destroyed some family way of life, no brothers or sisters, no Aunts and Uncles.  It also has future ramifications for China’s dependency ratio – one single child to look after 2 elderly grandparents!  This means that many Chinese simply don’t work in the formal economy but work to look after their ageing parents.  This means that they are not contributing to the economy and in the past China has relaxed the one child rule.  In certain cities today it has been completely abandoned as cities search for economic growth and a workforce that can supply it in the future. The last impact has been to create an army of bachelors, competing for the lower number of females available.

Death rate trends, life expectancy and management

Life Expectancy has increased considerably in China, especially since the cultural revolution of China and the creation of the Peoples Republic of China.

Historical change

China’s mortality has declined dramatically over the past 50 years, especially in the early years of the People’s Republic. The official death rate in 1953 was 14 deaths per 1,000 people, but it was probably much higher because mortality was chronically underestimated. The official death rate had dropped below 8 by 1970 and below 7 by 2000. China’s mortality fell in part thanks to land and other resources to help ensure access by even the poorest citizens. The new government also began to develop massive public health programs. Early programs focused on relatively inexpensive goals and campaigns—such as local environmental clean-up programs and training programs for local health personnel—that contributed to lower mortality. China’s mortality decline was interrupted at several points by temporary but often severe disruptions tied to political, economic, or social changes. The most notable was the Great Leap Forward.

In 1958, the Chinese government launched the Great Leap Forward, a massive effort to rapidly increase agricultural and industrial production. The program was a colossal failure and, ironically, caused one of the largest famines in human history. The Chinese government kept the details of the era secret for many years, releasing some data only in the 1980s. Demographers and others who pieced together the available information have estimated that more than 30 million people died between 1958 and 1961 as a result of the Great Leap Forward. Infants were especially vulnerable. Infant mortality rates spiked in 1958 and again in 1961. Adult mortality surged in 1960.  As the country recovered, mortality levels declined and life expectancy at birth increased—from 35 years in 1949 to 72 years in 2001.

China’s entry into the Free Trade system and market reform has further increased access to medical care and has built on state systems such as “barefoot doctors” who helped i n rural districts, and immunisation against polio and measles. The current pronlem is that there is a gap between services available in rural and urban areas.

Recent change

The average life expectancy of Chinese increased to 73 in 2005, 1.6 years more than in 2000, according to the Chinese Ministry of Health. Life expectancy was only 36.5 years in 1949 when the People's Republic of China was founded.

The infant death rate decreased to 1.53 percent last year, down from 2.55 percent in 2003.

The reasons for this are multiple, but much can be attributed to;

  1. Massive investment in Health Care provision - the number of health organizations jumped to 315,000 while the government spent 1.05 trillion yuan (US$144.27 billion), or 4.82 percent of China's gross domestic product, on health care.
  2. Investment in stemming the potential AIDS epidemic -  about 1.8 billion yuan of the central government's budget was devoted to AIDS treatment in 2007 as the number of people estimated to be living with HIV on the mainland may have risen to 700,000 in the same year.
  3. 30 million people were estimated to have joined the country's medical insurance network by the end of 2007 after a basic medical insurance trial program was launched in July.
  4. In addition, the rural cooperative medical insurance system, initiated in 2003 to offer farmers basic health care, covered 730 million rural residents, or 86 percent of the rural population, by the end of September


Migration patterns and laws

Towards the end of the 20th century, it was estimated that there were some 33 million ethnic Chinese living outside China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Large though this figure might appear, it is small compared with the total population of China itself, representing only 2.5 percent of a figure that presently exceeds 1.3 billion.

However, any simple correlation between the total population of China and the number of Chinese overseas is deceptive, because the majority of the latter trace their roots to a very few regions within China. The three southern coastal provinces of Guangdong, Fujian, and Zhejiang have dominated the emigration, and within those provinces, a limited number of districts and even villages. These areas were marginal to the Chinese state and weak in terms of their resource base. However, most importantly, these areas were the earliest and most intensively affected by the seaborne expansion of European colonial powers, which linked them to a wider global system. Furthermore, in contrasting numbers of Chinese overseas with the base population of China, Chinese ethnicity must Migration of Chinese from China has, nevertheless, been significant. It is a growing phenomenon, one that is often included under the rubric "the Chinese diaspora." The 33 million estimate at the end of the 20th century for the number of Chinese overseas had increased from around 22 million in 1985, and from 12.7 million in the early 1960s. Given the generally low fertility of overseas Chinese populations, this suggests a significant role for migration from China (including Hong Kong and Taiwan) over the second half of the 20th century.

In the past and until the 1960s, China was characterized by high fertility that generated a "surplus" population that was available to migrate from certain parts of the country.

With the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, emigration from China became strictly controlled, almost a return to Qing policies of the 16th century. The migration from China that did occur was primarily of students to the then Soviet Union and of specialist workers to certain developing countries such as Tanzania. Any remaining migration was within the Chinese sphere. Over one million migrants, mainly supporters of the defeated nationalist Guomindang Party, fled to Taiwan around the time of the formation of the People's Republic. An equal number of migrants went to Hong Kong at the same time, followed by a continuous, if fluctuating, flow to the British colony over the subsequent three decades. Almost half a million entered Hong Kong between 1977 and 1982, for example.

Once China began to open up after the economic reforms implemented from 1979, increasing numbers of Chinese began to go overseas, in small numbers at first, but in significant numbers from the mid-1990s.

The figures on Chinese going overseas as immigrants provide only part of the picture. Large numbers go abroad temporarily as students or skilled workers. Students from China make up the most important group of foreign students in Canada and the second most important group in the United States in the early 21st century.

There is also large scale internal migration in China, particularly since industrialisation and urbanisation took hold.

The Subject Guide

Population distribution and economic development at the national scale including voluntary internal migration, core-periphery patterns and mega-city growth. Two detailed and contrasting examples of uneven population distribution.

A. China: Introduction

With a population of 1.37 billion people (set 2016; source CIA World Facebook), China remains the world's most populous country. The growth rate in 2017 was estimated by the UN to be 0.43%, significantly lower than a world average of approximately 1.11% pa. The removal of the One Child Policy in 2016 may lead to an increase in this rate of growth in future years as China changes policy to tackle its ageing population.

Although China has the world's largest total population, it has a land area of almost 9.6 million km sq; China's population density, at 141 people per square kilometre means that it ranks 79th in the world in terms of overall population density. 

China's population is unevenly spread. This is a result of both human and physical factors which will be explored below.

B. China's Population Density

Use the maps below and the blank China map to create a fully annotated map which shows:
  • areas with population densities of more than 250 people per square kilometre
  • megacites: Shanghai, Beijing, Chongqing, Guizhou, Shenzhen, Chengdu, Xian, Wuhan (annotate each of these with their populations)
  • the Hu Huanyong line; find out what this line represents and explain this in your annotations
Now write a description of China's population distribution. You should refer to data, province and city names, the Hu Huanyong Line and refer clearly to north/south/east/west of the country.

C. Physical factors affecting population density in China

Use the maps below to begin to explain the variations in population density you have already identified. 
  1. How does relief connect to areas of low and high density? What densities are found in areas of lowland and how does this compare to mountainous areas. Remember to name the areas/provinces you refer to in your answer. Explain the connections you identify.
  2. How do the patterns of precipitation and temperatures connect to variations in population density?

D. Human factors affecting population density: economic development

A brief history of economic development in China
Until 1911, China was an imperial country, ruled by emperors who had total control over "The Middle Kingdom". A series of dynasties lasted from ancient times until the Qin Dynasty which lasted from 1644 till 1911. The emperors were regarded as "Sons of Heaven" and were reluctant to embrace progress or reform.

In 1911, the final emperor was overthrown and a republican government was established under the leadership of Sun Yat-Sen and his party KMT. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was established in 1921. In 1926, political and philosophical differences between the two parties led to a civil war which concluded in 1949 with the CCP victorious and the communist leader Mao Zedong established the People's Republic of China.

The Chinese economy was then subject to strong central control and a series of "Five Year Plans" and political/economic campaigns. Private ownership of land and of businesses was abolished. China's economy suffered from periods of great upheaval and social change, in particular the Great Leap Forward between 1958-1960 and the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976. it is estimated that the Great Leap forward caused 45 million deaths.

Mao Zedong died in 1976, ending the Cultural Revolution and starting a period of liberalisation and and opening of the Chinese economy. Mao was replaced by Deng Xiaoping who focused on the economic development f the country and worked to build ties with the outside, capitalist world. foreign investment was encouraged for the first time and Special Economic Zones were established in Shenzhen and Zhuhai initially. The government introduced incentives for private enterprise. Consumer and export sectors of the Chinese economy grew rapidly and an urban middle class developed, particularly in the cities of the east coast such as Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou. Living standards, literacy, life expectancy and GDP all increased. In 1992 Deng Xiaoping declared that "to be rich is glorious". China's economic growth averaged 13% per year in the 1990s and, although this growth has slowed in recent years, China has had the world's greatest growth for more than 30 years.

While all areas of the country have benefited from this economic growth, most growth has been focused in the east, especially in the coastal provinces. It is estimated that more than 700 million people have moved out of poverty in the last 30 years with hugely improved access to education, health care, electricity and running water. The focus os this growth remains in the east and the gap between the richest and poorest in Chinese society has grown. This has led to massive, often state sponsored migration to regional cities and from poorer to richer provinces.

Coastal provinces therefore tend to be more outward looking, have much greater access to world markets, education and expertise and have benefited greatly from Foreign Direct Investment. This has enhanced the benefits these provinces already have through physical characteristics of relief, soil, rainfall and temperatures as well as their coastal locations.
1. Variations in economic development
Study the maps, graphs and diagrams below:
  • To what extent can you see a connection between the wealth of provinces in China and their population density?
2. Is there a correlation between GDP and population density in China?
  • Use the data in the spreadsheet below to draw a scattergraph showing population density against GDP.
  • Identify and describe the pattern shown. What are the overall trends? Quote data to support what you say. 
  • Which provinces are anomalies? Suggest reasons.
  • Now use Spearman's Rank Correlation Coefficient to investigate the strength of the correlation between the two sets of data.
  • What are your overall conclusions? Explain.

Additional reading

  • Geography Course Companion (Nagle and Cook) - pp3391-393
  • Planet Geography (Codrington) - pp

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