Arguments - Trends
|When the Peoples
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 Chinas
population growth despite already low levels of fertility. Within the next three decades,
China's population will increase by another 260 million.
Description of the Problem
|To assess the
population components of China's food problems, we have to understand the following
population increase during the first three decades after the foundation of the
Peoples Republic. It has created a population momentum, that will
drive Chinas population growth in coming decades despite already low levels of
extreme spatial distribution of the population, which is a consequence of
the countrys uneven cropland distribution, climate, and physical environment.
population density in relation to vital natural resources, such as land
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.
|At its founding in
1949 the Peoples 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
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 Chinas 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 ones 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. Chinas
future population growth will depend very much on the balance of these two factors.
|A second salient
characteristic of Chinas demographic situation is the concentration of its large
population in the eastern part of the country, especially in the coastal zones. Much of
Chinas 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:
||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.
||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
||Roughly 1 billion Chinese (or more
than 90% of the population) live in only a little more than 30% of the countrys 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 countrys 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 countrys climatic and physical
characteristics. IIASA's LUC Project has compiled detailed digital maps to study
Chinas 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 Chinas 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). Chinas 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 countrys population
|Population density and food security
Chinas 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 Chinas 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. Chinas 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
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 Chinas 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.
|The Great Leap Forward
|We cannot talk about
Chinas 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 countrys
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.
Impact Data Quality Prediction Error Intervention Possibilities Intervention Costs
Revision 2.0 (First revision published in 1999)
- Copyright © 2011 by Gerhard K. Heilig. All rights reserved. (First revision: Copyright © 1999 by IIASA.)