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April 12, 2010
Volume 88, Number 15
p. 56

Doubts About China's Population Figures

Jean-François Tremblay/C&EN
Always crowded: The Nanjing East Road pedestrian walkway in Shanghai.
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Jean-François Tremblay/C&EN
Seemingly Empty: A national park in Henan province.

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For about a dozen years now, I've firmly believed that there are far fewer people in China than official statistics report. The Chinese government says 1.3 billion, but my eyes and judgment as C&EN's reporter there tell me something else—and I choose to believe the latter.

I've been to a lot of places in China in the past 20 years, and I've found the country to be mostly empty. I'm not talking about the Gobi Desert or Tibet, where there isn't supposed to be a lot of people, I'm talking about the parts of China where there's purportedly a huge crushing mass of human population.

I've seen many people in Chinese cities, but it's not anything like it is in Indian cities where you see, smell, and hear people everywhere. In major Chinese cities, if you leave the crowded center, you can drive a long way on empty boulevards devoid of pedestrians and ask yourself, "WHERE ARE THE CHINESE?" Outside the major cities are jungle, farmland, and wilderness that welcome you in areas that are supposed to be densely populated.

To be sure, there are many places in China where I've found a great deal of people. I've had my bones crushed by thick crowds on buses and subways at rush hour in Shanghai and Hangzhou, and I've sat hopelessly in traffic jams in Beijing and Guangzhou.

But at the same time, I simply cannot believe that Henan, a central province that is one-quarter the size of France, is home to 100 million people—nearly double France's population. The province reached that number last year, according to statements made at that time by Henan's Communist Party chief, Xu Guanchun.

I was in Henan in November 2009 for the third or fourth time. It's a mostly rural province with stunning mountain ranges in which a person could get desperately lost. In Zhengzhou, the capital, the municipal government reports that the city has more than 7 million people, but it doesn't feel any more populated than Montreal, my hometown, where there are only 3 million residents.

Chongqing, a municipality in southwest China, is supposed to have 30 million people. Yes, I'm aware that Chongqing's land area is gigantic, but 30 million, really? The city of Chongqing feels as populated as Hong Kong, where I live, and there are only 7 million there. Countryside surrounds Chongqing city proper, and has not many people at all.

I've speculated as to why China's population might be overstated: There could be mistakes in counting. In a 2005 paper in the Chinese journal Acta Geographica Sinica, Jianfa Shen, a professor of geography and resource management at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, reported that China suffers from a serious problem of inconsistent urban population data (2005, 60, 607). Unlike me, however, Shen believes that on the whole, recent Chinese census data are reliable. I asked him if it was possible that migrant workers might be enumerated both in the villages they came from and the cities they've moved to, but Shen says that there are special safeguards against this type of double counting.

In my view, Chinese officials are the ones to gain by exaggerating population data. At the national level, there's a certain prestige in claiming to be the world's most populated country. At the provincial or city level, Chinese officials probably get more resources from the central government by overstating the number of people they manage.

I could be wrong about my belief that China has fewer than 1 billion people, and I'll gladly listen to anyone who can prove otherwise. As things are, when I'm told that China has 1.3 billion people, I feel as though I've been given a hot cup of tea and told it's iced.

Jean-François Tremblay wrote this week's column. Please send comments and suggestions to newscripts@acs.org.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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