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Population Growth
When the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, it had a population of 540 million. Only three decades later its population was more than 800 million. This unprecedented population increase has created a strong population momentum that is now driving China’s population growth despite already low levels of fertility. Within the next three decades, China's population will increase by another 260 million.
Short Description of the Problem
To assess the population components of China's food problems, we have to understand the following demographic characteristics:
WB00860_.gif (262 bytes) The population increase during the first three decades after the foundation of the People’s Republic. It has created a population momentum, that will drive China’s population growth in coming decades despite already low levels of fertility.
WB00860_.gif (262 bytes) The extreme spatial distribution of the population, which is a consequence of the country’s uneven cropland distribution, climate, and physical environment.
WB00860_.gif (262 bytes) The high population density in relation to vital natural resources, such as land and water.
WB00860_.gif (262 bytes) The unprecedented demographic disaster during the Great Leap Forward, when famine killed an estimated 30 million people. In this historical event, we can identify some of the most serious risks to food security in China.
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Population momentum Tables & Charts
At its founding in 1949 the People’s Republic of China had a population of 540 million. Only three decades later its population was more than 800 million. This enormous population increase created a strong population momentum that still drives population growth despite rapidly declining fertility in the late 1970s and 1980s (see Figure 1). In 1995, China's population reached 1.23 billion. In its most recent (medium variant) projection, the UN Population Division estimates that China's population will increase to 1.49 billion in 2025 and then slightly decline to 1.48 billion in 2050 (see Table 1). This is equivalent to a population increase of roughly 261 million people between 1995 and 2025 and a population decline of 3.7 million between 2025 and 2050 (see Table 2). In other words, during the three decades between 1995 and 2025 China's population will increase by a number of people roughly equivalent to the total population of the USA. To meet this additional demand is one of the core problems of China's food security.

China's future population growth is a product of past growth. The average number of children per woman has been below the replacement level of 2.1 since the mid-1980s. Most recent estimates from the State Statistical Bureau assume that current fertility on a national average is at 1.85 children per woman. In cities, the fertility was estimated at 1.43, in towns at 1.58, and in rural counties at 2.00 children per woman (see Table 3). Whatever population growth we see in the future will be caused not by high fertility, but by the "population momentum" of China's young age structure. What will come is a legacy of the 1950s and 1960s, when China's fertility was quite high and mortality had already declined. Consequently, China now has a large number of young adults of reproductive age. Their number will actually increase until 2015 (see Figure 2). This growing number of potential parents is the reason the number of births will remain high even if fertility remains at the current low level.
China's population planners can do nothing about this structural increase. The problem they face is keeping fertility at the current low level. However, with China's economic modernization, this may be an uphill battle, because in a more liberal society many Chinese might not accept the government's strict one-child family policy. This policy has already been loosened for parents who were single children themselves, for farmers, and for ethnic minorities. In fact, most population projections for China assume that fertility will increase slightly to the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman. Policymakers in China are of course aware of this challenge. The family planning program still has very high political priority, even under the most recent political administration.
On the other hand, there is a secular trend toward small families among younger couples in urban areas. Surveys have documented a lifestyle change among those sections of the urban population that have benefited most from China’s economic development. They prefer later marriages, later first births, and increased birth spacing, not only because these decisions are promoted by the family planning program, but also because they make it easier to improve one’s education or pursue a career. As in many other developing countries, fertility in China will probably decline with prosperity. Thus, there are two opposite trends: while the necessary liberalization of society is "weakening" the family planning program, which might lead to an increase in fertility, economic development is promoting a lifestyle change associated with lower fertility. China’s future population growth will depend very much on the balance of these two factors.

UN Population Projections, 1994 & 1996
Figure 1

China's Population by Age Groups
Table 1

China's Population Increase by Age Groups
Table 2

Recent Fertility Estimates for China
Table 3

Population Growth in China by Selected Age Groups
Figure 2

Population distribution
A second salient characteristic of China’s demographic situation is the concentration of its large population in the eastern part of the country, especially in the coastal zones. Much of China’s land is virtually uninhabited, such as the Gobi Desert, the steep slopes of the Himalayas, and the vast dry grasslands of the north-central region. I have used population and area data for 2,550 counties, cities, and city districts from the Chinese Ministry of Public Security to analyze the spatial distribution of the Chinese population in 1992. First, I calculated the densities of all spatial units and sorted them in decreasing order. Then I totaled both the land areas and the population (see Table 4). The results are as follows: China's Population Density Distribution
Table 4

Concentration of Cultivated Land
Map 1

Digital Elevation Map of China
Map 2

Average Annual Precipitation in China
Map 3

(1) Nearly 115 million people (or 10% of the population) live in an area of only 47,000 square kilometers. This is just 0.5% of China's total landmass. The average population density in the most densely populated counties and cities is 2,428 people per square kilometer.
(2) Fifty percent of the Chinese population lives in an area of 778,000 square kilometers, which represents only about 8.2% of the total land. This area has an average population density of 740 people per square kilometer.
(3) Roughly 1 billion Chinese (or more than 90% of the population) live in only a little more than 30% of the country’s land area. The population density of this area is 354 people per square kilometer.
Almost all of China's population is concentrated in less than one-third of the country, where the average population density is greater than that of Belgium.
Map 4 illustrates the geographical concentration of the Chinese population. The Yangtze Delta, Sichuan, and the counties and cities along the eastern coast are the main population centers. In contrast, 50% of  China's landmass is very sparsely populated, with a density ranging from 2 people per square kilometer in Tibet to 19 people per square kilometer in Inner Mongolia. Only 3.6% of the country’s population lives in these vast areas.
The highly uneven population distribution of China reflects not only the concentration of arable land in the east (see Map 2), but also the country’s climatic and physical characteristics. IIASA's LUC Project has compiled detailed digital maps to study China’s climatic and geophysical characteristics, which severely limit conditions for agriculture (see also the chapters on Arable land/soils and Water resources). As can be seen from the digital elevation model used, much of China’s landmass is extremely mountainous with high elevations (see Map 3). In addition, only very limited areas have enough precipitation for rain-fed agriculture (see Map 4). China’s uneven population distribution also reflects the transportation problems of a continental-scale country. Chinese civilization spread along the coastal zones and main rivers, using sea and river transport as the backbone of its expansion. A lack of infrastructure still contributes to the country’s population concentration.
Population density and food security
Because of China’s massive population growth in the 1950s and 1960s, its uneven population concentration (see Map 4), and its agro-climatic limitations, there is now very high population pressure on the available cropland (see Table 5).
Many analysts have argued that China’s ratio of people to arable land is unsustainable. This Malthusian argument is very popular among certain environmentalists who have repeatedly predicted that China will not be able to feed itself. The argument is as follows: a given area of land can sustain only a certain number of people. If the population grows above this threshold, famine will occur and cut the population down to a "sustainable" size. This classical Malthusian argument has been repeated by numerous authors - sometimes in its original version, sometimes modified in various ways. For instance, some authors (and the later Malthus) have assumed that people might anticipate food shortages and restrict their reproduction accordingly, thus achieving a balance between people and land without having to wait for famine.
The Malthusian argument is quite popular and intuitive, but it is simply wrong for almost all advanced industrial societies.
First, the food production potential of a certain land area is not constant; it can be increased by agricultural technology, sometimes by orders of magnitude (for instance, Libya's growing of wheat in the desert). The limitation often is not land or water as such, but access to technology and investment capital. There are many examples of people suffering from chronic food shortages and famine while living in the middle of a huge area of arable land, such as in Sudan. China’s agricultural sector has not reached the maximum productivity possible with currently available technology - not to mention the possible productivity increase from evolving techniques such as plant genetics and cloning.
Second, in advanced societies people usually do not live off the land, but are supplied through trade from agricultural areas or fishing grounds located far away. This is obvious for people living in urban agglomerates, who depend on agricultural hinterlands located as far away as other continents. The idea of national food self-sufficiency is usually inappropriate for a modern industrial society. It ignores that advanced human economies use trade and division of labor to compensate for national disadvantages. With the emergence of a global economy, this has become even more important. There are many examples of resource-poor countries that have achieved high levels of food security, such as Japan, South Korea, and Singapore. In 1995, for instance, Japan had a total cereal production of 13.4 million tons and a net import of cereals of 26.8 million tons; that same year, South Korea imported 12.4 million tons of cereals, while it produced only 6.9 million tons. China has a huge trade surplus with the USA, one of the world's leading agricultural producers. China could certainly spend some of these earnings on feed grain imports. Economic rationality suggests that densely populated countries with very limited agricultural resources, such as China, should increase their food supply by imports.
We can conclude that high population density is usually unrelated to food insecurity. Nothing proves this point better than China’s population history (see Figure 3). Today, China can feed 1.3 billion people; 40 years ago, when population density was less than half as high, the country suffered one of the worst famines in human history; and during most of the past 2000 years, when China's population fluctuated between 80 and 120 million - less than one tenth of today - famine (and war) was so frequent that their description constitutes a dominant part in historical documents.
China's Population Distribution, 1992
Map 4

Population Density in Selected Chinese Provinces
Table 5

China's Population: AD 0 - 2050
Figure 3

The Great Leap Forward
We cannot talk about China’s future food security without discussing the Great Leap Forward. Between 1959 and 1961, some 30 million people perished in a famine triggered by a brutal, badly designed economic experiment by the communist government to speed up the country’s industrialization and rural modernization. Millions of farmers were removed from agricultural communes and ordered to work in primitive village industries. While the farmers tried to produce steel in their backyards, not enough labor was available to bring in the harvest. Other factors might have been involved in the rapidly developing famine, such as regional harvest losses due to bad weather conditions, deficient logistics, or communication problems between the cadres. But there can be no doubt that the main cause of the disaster was the political decision to implement a bad economic program (see Becker, 1996; Piazza, 1983).
The enormous loss of human life during the Great Leap Forward was long kept secret by the communist government, but in the late 1970s - and especially after the 1980 census - the full demographic extent of this man-made disaster became obvious. Today the demographic impact of the Great Leap Forward can be seen in official Chinese population statistics (see Figures 4 and 5). This famine has been researched in detail by many authors (see, e.g., Piazza, 1983; Ashton et al., 1984; Becker, 1996), and it is now clear that policy failure was its main cause.
Crude Birth and Death Rates, 1949 - 1997
Figure 4
Population by Sex & Age, 1990 Census
Figure 5
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.)