BEIJING // The results of China's first census in a decade were released yesterday, revealing a sharp ageing of the population, due in part to the one-child policy.
The world's most populous nation is also becoming more urbanised, with about half its citizens now living in cities as country dwellers leave their home provinces to secure the better-paid work created by the country's economic transformation.
The census, carried out last year and the sixth the country has undertaken, found that just 16.6 per cent of China's 1.34 billion population was aged 14 or under, compared to 22.9 per cent in the 2000 census. By contrast, the number of people aged 60 years or older, recorded at 10.4 per cent in 2000, last year reached 13.3 per cent.
The one-child policy prevented 400 million additional births, the government said, although as prosperity has increased in the large cities, birth rates would likely have fallen in any case.
Human rights groups have criticised the policy, introduced in 1980, as an imposition on the reproductive rights of couples, and there have been repeated allegations of forced abortions and sterilisations against officials in charge of carrying out the policy.
Despite recent speculation that China was considering relaxing the policy, the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, was quoted by the state-run Xinhua news agency earlier this week as saying China would "stick to and improve its current family planning policy and maintain a low birth rate".
Wang Feng, a population expert and the director of the Brookings-Tsinghua Center for Public Policy in Beijing, told the Associated Press that China's fertility rate of 1.5 children per couple was "alarmingly low" and warned the ageing of the population would "only get more serious".
China's population increased by 73.9 million between the 2000 and 2010 censuses - an average annual growth of 0.57 per cent.
The census revealed that 49.7 per cent of China's population now live in cities, compared to 36 per cent 10 years earlier. The country is estimated to have 230 million migrant workers who have flocked to urban areas as the country's economic growth has continued. This trend is expected to continue. In Japan, 67 per cent of the population is urban, in the United States the figure is 82 per cent and in the United Kingdom it is 90 per cent.
Many migrants are still registered as residents in their home provinces which often makes them ineligible for public services such as education and health care in the cities they have moved to.
The growth in the number of people aged 60 and above has not been matched by an increase in care provided for them, said Kam Ping Kwong, an associate professor at City University in Hong Kong who studies issues related to older people.
"Many old people are not cared for by their family members. The government needs to provide more services and more community support," Mr Kwong said.
China could learn lessons from neighbouring Japan, he added, pointing to community services for the elderly and health care for citizens with conditions such as dementia.
"If they want to help, they need to [learn] from other Asian countries and have long-term planning," he said. "In mainland China … the scope of the services is too limited."
The census involved six million data collectors going door to door to ask questions of 400 million households. In contrast to previous surveys, this time people's details were recorded according to where they actually lived, rather than where official registration documents recorded them as living.
The census data showed that 91.51 per cent of Chinese people are of Han ethnicity, down 0.08 per cent from the previous census. The one-child policy is enforced more strictly among the Han group than among officially recognised minorities, who are generally allowed a second child.
According to census results, China's literacy rate is now almost 96 per cent, compared to slightly more than 93 per cent in 2000.