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Arguments - Data Quality

Population Growth
During the first three decades after the foundation of the People's Republic, few detailed population data were published in China. Those statistics that were available were of questionable validity, because of massive political interference with the statistical system during that period. However, the situation has changed fundamentally since the late 1970s. Today, detailed high-quality demographic statistics are available, not only within the country, but also to foreign experts. The 1982 and 1990 censuses in particular have significantly improved the situation.
To measure short-term changes in demographic trends between census years and to obtain more detailed demographic information, China has conducted several sample surveys. Recent household and fertility surveys have shown extremely low levels of fertility, which might be looked at with some skepticism.
Description of the Problem
Reliable demographic statistics are essential for estimating China's future population growth, which is a major driving factor of food demand.
WB00860_.gif (262 bytes) What is the history of (population) statistics in modern China?
WB00860_.gif (262 bytes) Which data sources are reliable?
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The history of (population) statistics in modern China Tables & Charts
For more than 30 years - between 1949 and the early 1980s - statistical data in China were an instrument of political propaganda and manipulation. Detailed demographic and economic statistics were seldom published, and data that were available were of questionable validity. This lack of reliable statistical information not only led to embarrassing misinterpretations of China's development in the West, but it also made it difficult for China's leaders to get an unbiased view of what was going on in their country. For more than 10 years after the Cultural Revolution - between 1966 and the mid-1970s -  there was almost no systematic collection and publication of statistical information at the national level. Even basic demographic and economic statistics were not available.
The situation gradually began to improve in the late 1970s, and detailed results were published for the 1982 census. Since then, China has not only made most of its statistics available to the outside world, but it has also worked hard to improve the validity of its demographic data. (For a more detailed analysis of China's statistical system since 1949, see the in-depth analysis).
History of statistics in the PRC
Reliable demographic information from the 1982 and 1990 censuses  
The People's Republic of China has conducted four population censuses: in 1953, 1964, 1982, and 1990. The 1953 census included only a few questions and was mainly targeted at providing a basis for monitoring the First Five-Year Plan. The 1964 census - conducted a few years after the economic and social disaster of the "Great Leap Forward" - was a complete failure. It was badly organized and only a part of the collected data was processed and tabulated. In the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, most of the questionnaires were lost or destroyed. Demographic data before the late 1970s - as all statistical information - are of questionable validity due to massive interference from the political system.
However, there is widespread consensus among demographers that China's population data from the 1982 and 1990 censuses are quite accurate. Several scholarly papers have been published by both Western and Chinese demographers confirmed the high quality of the data. It has been argued that the enumeration of the total population in China in 1990 was probably more accurate than that of recent censuses in the USA (due to high levels of illegal immigration in the latter). With the 1982 and 1990 censuses, demographers have been able to reconstruct China's demographic history for the past several decades.
Questionable results from recent fertility surveys
With the implementation of its rigorous family planning program, China had a vital interest in producing detailed and reliable population statistics. In addition to the 1982 and 1990 national population censuses, China has conducted several fertility surveys. While these sample surveys were administered with high methodological sophistication, including detailed analysis of sampling errors (see Hao and Ling, 1997), the results have not convinced all demographers. To the surprise of many foreign experts, these surveys recently reported extremely low levels of fertility, not only for the cities, where the total fertility rate (TFR) was estimated to be below 1.2 children per woman, but also for rural areas, where an average TFR of 2 children per woman was reported. There is concern that due to underreporting of births, recent fertility estimates might be too low (Merli, 1998; see also Table 1).
There is, for instance, the well-known and heavily debated fact of "missing girls" in China. The sex ratio at birth and during young age groups is highly unbalanced - especially in certain rural provinces. There are only three possibilities that can explain this: (1) a high frequency of selective abortion of females; (2) infanticide or neglect of female babies; and (3) underreporting of female births and children. All three processes can be identified in China, each explaining about one-third of the "missing girls" (Banister, 1996). Due to pressure from China's one-child policy, farmers, especially those in remote areas, have been using these measures to make sure that they have at least one son.
The problem of "missing girls" due to underreporting indicates that fertility in China might be higher than reported. This question is certainly discussed among the demographic experts and great efforts are being made to come up with accurate estimates.
Recent fertility estimates for China
Table 1
Related Arguments

Population:   Trends     Impact    Data Quality    Prediction Error    Intervention Possibilities    Intervention Costs

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Revision 2.0 (First revision published in 1999)  - Copyright 2011 by Gerhard K. Heilig. All rights reserved. (First revision: Copyright 1999 by IIASA.)