Also See: Major Cities in China
China, officially the People's Republic of China, is comfortably the largest country in the world today. In January 2013, the Chinese Government released data confirming that the population of China was an impressive 1,354,040,000, although this does not include Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao. As of September 2013, that number has grown even further to 1,362,391,579.
India, the next largest country, has 100 million fewer people, for a population of 1,210,193,422 (read more in our article on the population of India. The United States, the third largest country in the world, has a much smaller population of 315 million (read more in our article on the US population). Estimates show that India will pass China as the most populous nation in the world by 2025.
China Population 2013
Unfortunately, there isn’t a really simple answer to the question of how many people live in China. That's because it is a country of several different parts, not all of which is governed by Beijing.
To understand China's population and demographics, it helps to understand its government a bit. The People's Republic of China (PRC) is governed by the Communist Party with its seat of government in Beijing, which exercises jurisdiction over 5 autonomous regions, 22 provinces, 4 direct-controlled municipalities and 2 primarily self-governing special administrative regions (Macau/Macao and Hong Kong). The PRC also claims Taiwan, which is controlled by a separate political entity called the Republic of China (ROC) as its 23rd province. This makes population figures a bit confusing.
The figure quoted at the top of this article, for example, doesn’t include the island of Taiwan, which the PRC claims as a part of China. Nor does it include the former British and Portugese colonies of Hong Kong and Macau, which are governed as special administrative regions.
Estimates are available for these regions as of 2013, which show:
- Mainland China: 1,362,391,575
- Taiwan: 23,151,339
- Hong Kong: 7,204,364
- Macao: 591,900
So, adding those figures together, we get:
Population of the People’s Republic of China: 1,370,187,839 (That’s mainland China plus Hong Kong and Macau – everything except Taiwan.)
Population of 'Greater' China: 1,393,339,178 (That’s the whole works – the PRC, Taiwan and the two Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau.)
Largest Cities in China
Almost half of all Chinese live in urban areas today, and the number is only expected to grow in the coming decades. According to some predictions, it’s likely that almost 70% of Chinese will live in urban areas by 2035. Most of them, as you can see from the map, are concentrated in the east of China, often in coastal cities.
So, it’s not surprising that there are a staggering 90 cities in China (defined as an urban area) with a population of more than 1 million people.
While this would typically be followed with a list of cities in the country with a population over 1 million, that's a bit excessive in the case of China. You can visit the full list by clicking on the link above, but here’s a quick list of the five largest Chinese cities with their last confirmed populations:
- Shanghai, a municipality (2012 pop 23,710,000)
- Beijing, a municipality (2012 pop 20,693,000)
- Tianjin, a municipality (2010 pop 12,938,224)
- Guangzhou, a sub-provincial capital (2013 pop 14,000,000)
- Shenzhen, a sub-provincial city and previous special economic zone city (2010 pop 10,357,938)
China Population Density
As a whole, China has a population density of 139.6 people per square kilometer, or 363.3 people per square mile. This ranks 81st, despite the country itself being one of the largest in terms of size and the largest in terms of population.
The density figures change dramatically when you look at the largest urban areas, however. Shanghai, the largest city in the country and the world, has a population density of 3,700 people per square kilometer, or 9,700 people per square mile.
Surprisingly, none of China's cities make the list of the top 30 most densely populated cities in the world, most of which are in India, the Philippines, France and other countries. Macau, however, is the 36th most densely populated city with a density of 18,568 people per square kilometer (48,092 per square mile). Macau tops the list of sovereign states and dependent territories in terms of population density. Despite this tightly packed area, it still has the second highest life expectancy in the world and remains one of the few areas in Asia to receive a "very high Human Development Index" ranking.
Today, China is considered a middle-income nation by Western standards, and its rapid growth over the decades has pulled hundreds of millions of its citizens out of poverty. About 10% of the population in the country lives on $1 USD a day, compared to 64% just 35 years ago.
Although 56 different ethnic groups are officially recognized in China, 91.51% of Chinese are Han Chinese. Only one other group – Zhuang – has a larger than 1% share of the population. Other ethnic groups are growing at a higher rate than Han Chinese but, because of the massive dominance of Han Chinese, this is not expected to dramatically alter China’s ethnic composition.
China is officially an atheist state, and doesn’t survey its people on their religion. So, as you can imagine, no accurate figures are available. China's constitution guarantees freedom of religion, although any religious organization without official approval faces state persecution. A 2007 survey in the country found that about 31% of its population over 16 consider themselves religious.
Chinese culture and civilization has been influenced by many religious movements over the past 1,000 years, and Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism are considered the country's "Three Religions" based on their cultural and historical impact. China has also seen an interesting syncing of these three religions in the form of a folk religion that is common throughout the country.
About 2% of the population is Islamic, with a Christian population between 3.2% and 5%. Buddhism is practiced by 10 to 18% of Chinese residents while over 30% practice local folk religions.
China's Growth Problems
The size of its population has, for a long time, been a hot political issue in China. After rapid population growth in the middle of the 20th century, the Chinese Government sought to limit population growth by introducting the famous ‘one child policy.’
The scheme, which rewards couples that agree to have just one child with cash bonuses and better access to housing, has proved so successful that the birth rate of 1.4 children per woman has fallen below the replenishment rate of 2.1 children per woman that is needed to maintain the level of population. As a result, experts are now concerned that China’s low birth rate, combined with its aging population, will damage it’s future economic development.
Their one child policy has met with a great deal of resistance however, particularly in rural areas and due to the traditional desire for male children. Families who breach this policy tend to lie on census polls, so the true population of China may be a bit skewed. This means that Chinese population statistics have become less reliable since the policy began in the 1970's.
Much of China’s economic growth has been attributed to its abundant and cheap workforce, combined with its low social costs. But, with the number of young Chinese falling and the number of elderly Chinese increasing, it is not certain whether China’s economy can continue to grow at the same rapid rate, and the Government is facing increasing calls to abandon its one child policy.
China also has an abnormal ratio of male:female births. Whereas in most countries more girls are born the boys, in China, the reverse is true. Many suspect that this is because of a preference for boys among Chinese families. Whatever the reason, though, it is likely that this will impact on China’s aging population as women continue to be seen as the primary caregivers within Chinese society.
China Population Projections
China's population projections are very interesting, given that it is the most populous country in the world. According to current projections, China's population will finally peak in 2026 with a shrinking labor force and an over-65 population of 240 million. Only Japan has aged faster than China.
China has another very serious demographic problem due to sex-selective abortion and its one-child policy, resulting in a ratio of 120 boys for every 100 girls. It's estimated that the percentage of men in their late 30's who have never married will quintuple by 2030, and this large number of unmarriageable young men cannot help the country.
By 2028, both India and China are estimated to have 1.45 billion residents each, but India will start to take 1st place with a growth continuing until 2050, while China's population is expected to decline after 2030.