China pursues high-quality population development

By Lu Jiehua / 02-07-2024 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

China released a decision on improving birth policies to promote long-term and balanced population development in July 2021, allowing a couple to have three children. Photo: Liu Li/TUCHONG

Demographic issues are among the overarching, long-term, and strategic challenges facing China’s socio-economic development. Since the reform and opening-up in the late 1970s, China’s massive demographic dividend has been a major boost to its economy, which continues to grow and improve, while demographic risks have also accumulated. Supporting China’s modernization through high-quality population development is an imperative for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. 


High-quality population development can be described in five aspects. First, the population size remains at a moderate level. Second, the overall population quality is improved, particularly in terms of physical health, scientific and cultural literacy, and ethical and moral standards, thereby fostering a talent-rich nation. Third, a healthy population structure is formed by balancing the age distribution and the sex ratio. Fourth, the spatial distribution of the population is optimized through comprehensive planning of urban-rural distribution and coordination of regional distribution. Fifth, the various population elements are organically integrated both with each other and with society as a whole, contributing to sustainable development characterized by harmony between people, the economy, resources, and the environment. 

High-quality population development is of great importance to China. On the one hand, China is facing long-term demographic trends such as population decline, population aging, and sub-replacement birth rates. Labor supply will continue to shrink and the burden of caring for the elderly will become increasing heavy. This could impair the vitality of the Chinese economy, give rise to changes in social culture and intergenerational relationships, and destabilize families and society. 

On the other hand, population plays a fundamental role in socio-economic development. In the past, China capitalized on its huge population to effectively boost economic growth. With the popularization of basic education and the substantial development of higher education, the quality of China’s human capital has significantly improved, driving a new round of economic growth and enabling widespread political and social engagement. 


The current challenges in population size, quality, and structure also present opportunities to promote China’s modernization. Firstly, while China is confronted with population decline, a huge population size will continue to feature prominently in China’s long-term demographic outlook, allowing China to diversify its strategies in the process of socio-economic development. 

Secondly, there is an overall improvement in China’s population quality. The life expectancy of the Chinese population has increased while the infant mortality rate has gradually been reduced. The literacy rate has risen sharply, and the mean years of schooling has increased considerably. This suggests that the supply of high-quality labor will continue to increase, effectively filling the labor shortage and facilitating the transformation and upgrading of the Chinese economy. 

Third, changes in China’s population structure are expected to unlock enormous potential for high-quality population development. On the one hand, the risk of population aging can be transformed into the longevity dividend. As producers, the elderly can bring a wealth of knowledge, skills, and experience to society. As consumers, they can collectively create a “silver market” for products and services that meet their specific needs, driving the development of elderly care, health care, elderly-friendly technology, and other industries. On the other hand, gender equality helps alleviate the labor shortage. With improved health and educational attainment as well as declining influence of traditional gender roles, the labor force participation rate for women will rise. 

Fourthly, the scale of internal migration in China has expanded, the years of schooling of the migrant population has increased, and their employment quality has improved, which will facilitate urbanization and industrial transformation and upgrading. 


As China’s demographics are undergoing tremendous changes, strategy for population development should shift its focus from the quantitative demographic dividend to qualitative and structural advantages. First, in the overall context of population decline, policy support should be enhanced to reduce the cost of raising children and spur the recovery of the fertility rate. 

Second, the efficiency of human capital is now largely determined by educational attainment. Efforts should be concentrated on addressing the supply-demand imbalance in the labor market, which can be achieved through increasing investment in basic education as well as advancing higher education and vocational education. 

Third, given the acceleration of population aging, China should enhance its social security system and vigorously develop the silver economy to provide senior citizens with diversified, multi-dimensional services. 

Fourth, it is necessary to create new areas of economic growth, transform traditional industries, and foster emerging industries based on the characteristics of internal migration, while also promoting equitable provision of basic public services to ensure individuals enjoy equal opportunities and social protection. 

In summary, a huge population is the basis for China’s high-quality population development which should focus on comprehensively improving population quality and capitalize on the reality of changing demographics. 

Lu Jiehua is a professor in the department of sociology at Peking University.