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Population: Key to the Economic Takeoff

Gao Kun

As an economic law puts it, population exerts a decisive influence on the material development of any society. Judging from the current conditions and trends in the population of China, the next two decades should be a golden age for economic development in this country. This is the prediction made by Tian Xueyuan, a renowned expert on demography, in an interview with this CIIC reporter.

Currently, China is conducting its regular once-in-a-decade census. Compared with population sampling, a census is more accurate, comprehensive and factual. Apart from items such as the number of people and the quality and composition of their lives, the statistics gained through a census also include various indexes revealing economic, cultural and social development. Although the statistics have yet to be summarized, what can already be defined are the general changes and trends in China's population.

Due to family planning, China's population experienced only a small rise in numbers from 1990, with an annual increase of about 12 to 13 million. What are more important, however, are the changes in age composition. As shown by the census of 1990, China's population still was tipped toward the advanced stage in the adult category. China has now entered the threshold of becoming an aged society, with those over 65 and 60 accounting for 7 and 10 percent of the total population respectively.

In terms of population composition, China is now in the golden age of transition, providing a rare opportunity for an economic takeoff. Demographic principles divide the population into three categories: juvenile, adult and gerontic. People aged between 0 and 14 fall into the juvenile category and those above 59 into the gerontic category (the latter figure in some advanced countries may be 64). Those aged between 15 and 59 are defined as a population of productive age, the main economic contributors to society.

For the time being, the number of juvenile and elderly supported by each productive citizen (people belonging to the productive age group) is comparatively low. There are two reasons for this. First, people born in the two baby booms in China -- 1953-1957 (with an annual population growth rate of 2.4 percent) and 1962-1973 (with an annual growth rate of 2.6 percent) -- now constitute the main part of the productive age group. On the other hand, family planning, starting in the late 1970s, has resulted in an apparent reduction in the juvenile population. This means that China now can boast an abundant labor pool and a light burden of unproductive population, which is conducive to the development of productivity.

This trend will continue for another twenty years or so, after which China will gradually experience the heavy welfare burden of an aged society. Before that happens, said Tian, we should work to develop our productivity and realize an economic takeoff in the next two decades.

In order to take full advantage of the abundance of productive citizens, there are a few things China should do now. In the urban area, a multidimensional industrial system is demanded. While attaching importance to high-tech development, China should also develop technology-capital-and-labor-intensive industries, such as electronics, and textiles as well as the necessary infrastructure. These industries can absorb a great amount of labor. Also recommended is the continuation of the traditional handicrafts. By building up a multidimensional industrial system, China's productive citizens at various levels and capacities can contribute greatly to the country's modernization drive.

To develop productivity in rural areas, urbanization provides the way out. As the 21st Century Agenda indicates, the rural areas have a potential surplus labor pool of 200 million, hindering the increase in the amount of means of production as well as output per capita. To solve this problem, we should speed up the development of small towns and satellite cities, thus engaging rural residents in secondary and tertiary industries.

To realize a better balance between population and resources, we should stick to the family planning policy, controlling the population quantity while upgrading its quality. A favorable population composition will help to bring about the economic takeoff in the next two decades.

(CIIC 12/08/2000)

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