Major themes for high-quality population development

By YANG JUHUA / 03-01-2024 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

China’s population and its composition by the end of 2023 Photo: NATIONAL BUREAU OF STATISTICS OF CHINA

High-quality population development refers to a scenario where the overall population is of excellent population quality, adequate quantity, optimized structure, and rational distribution. To promote high-quality population development, it is necessary to approach it from the perspectives of promoting comprehensive modernization with Chinese characteristics and realizing the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. To this end, we need to grasp three major thematic propositions.

Putting people first

High-quality population development depends on individuals and serves their needs. People represent the most dynamic, enduring, and proactive elements across all facets of economic and social progress. An adequate population size forms the bedrock of high-quality population development. Past experiences illustrate that an ample population can furnish essential production factors for modernization endeavors and satisfy the demand for human resources in such endeavors. Additionally, it can provide greater maneuverability and space for socioeconomic advancement, fostering a vast domestic market and diverse, multi-level patterns of domestic demand and consumption. These dynamics can serve as new focal points for fostering high-quality economic development by stimulating domestic demand and encouraging innovation.

Population quality is the focus of high-quality development. Health is fundamental to one’s well-being and serves as a foundational indicator of population quality. National health signifies societal progress and national strength. China is seeing  improvement in the health quality of its population. With the advancement of the Healthy China strategy, the health level of the nation is expected to continue improving, accentuating the advantages of health capital. Knowledge and skills are the key indicators and inexhaustible driving forces of population quality, serving as the endogenous sources for propelling high-quality population, economic, and societal development. Robust scientific knowledge, production experience, and labor skills constitute the strategic support for high-quality population development, nurturing the advantage of human capital for economic and social development. This serves as the fundamental guarantee for transitioning from the “population dividend” to the “talent dividend.”


A country cannot thrive without virtues, and individuals cannot stand without virtues. Good moral cultivation is the criterion and concentrated manifestation of population quality, capable of generating a “multiplier effect” for high-quality population development. It forms the spiritual strength supporting economic and social development and is the cornerstone upholding modern Chinese civilization. 

The freedom and development of individuals are the basis for high-quality population development. The core of human progress is the development of individuals. Humans embody the unity of productive forces and relations, material civilization, and spiritual civilization. People are not only the primary driving force behind Chinese-style modernization and the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation but also the fundamental guiding principle of “putting people first.” It is a working principle that necessitates placing the safeguarding of the fundamental interests of the people at the forefront and as the focal point of all endeavors. It entails listening to the voices of the people, gathering their wisdom, addressing their concerns, and improving their well-being, thereby ensuring that the vast population has comprehensive, extensive, and meaningful participation rights in their daily economic, social, political, and cultural lives. 


Currently, China’s population development shows low fertility rates, aging demographics, and regional disparities in population growth and decline, leading to imbalances in both the natural and social structures of the population. Achieving high-quality population development necessarily requires coordinated development among various elements within the population and between the population and external factors.

Optimizing the population structure is key to high-quality population development. The findings of the seventh national census conducted in 2020 revealed a notable gender disparity within the country’s total population, with 34.9 million more males than females. This surplus of males is primarily concentrated in the age group under 40. Such an imbalance could potentially pose challenges in marriage and family formation for some males with lower economic and social status, consequently impacting the advancement of high-quality economic development, elderly care services, and security systems.   

Since 2018, the population of children aged 0-14 in China has consistently been fewer than the population aged 60 and above. By 2022, children aged 0-14 accounted for 16.9% of the total population, while those aged 60 and above accounted for 19.8%. In 2021, China transitioned into a moderately aged society, with individuals aged 65 and above exceeding 14%, reaching 14.9% by 2022. As China embarks on the new journey of Chinese-style modernization, the structure of the population is expected to continue aging, and the inverted pyramid structure, characterized by a wide top and a narrow bottom, is unlikely to reverse in the foreseeable future. Properly addressing the problems arising from gender structure imbalance and actively managing the relationship between children, working-age people, and the elderly, particularly by promoting active aging, are essential to driving high-quality population development.

Rational distribution is the cornerstone of high-quality population development. The longstanding imbalance and inequality in development between urban and rural areas and regions have been deeply ingrained over historical periods, influenced by location, geographical environment, and levels of economic and social development. This imbalance has driven large-scale spatial population movements. Territorial mobility integrates various factors including urban and rural areas, agricultural and commercial civilizations, cultural landscapes, and natural ecology, consequently reshaping the distribution of urban and rural populations. This transition has propelled China’s evolution from a predominantly rural society to one characterized by an “urban-rural” blend, transforming modes of social integration and cultural institutions, and constituting a strong driving force and significant subject of Chinese-style modernization in the new era.

As of 2022, China’s urban population has surpassed 900 million, with an urbanization rate exceeding 65%, which is anticipated to further increase in the future. The active flow of various endowment factors has enhanced the diversity, richness, and complexity of society as a whole. Relationships between urban and rural areas, developed and developing regions, new institutions and old regulations, old residents and new migrants, as well as issues like narrowing the wealth gap, achieving both material and spiritual prosperity, and balancing economic development with environmental conservation, constitute the contemporary challenges of a highly mobile society.


High-quality population development ultimately centers around “development.” “People” are both the subject and objective of development, while “coordination” serves as the means and pathway, and “development” itself represents the task and goal. Without high-quality development, there can be no genuine focus on individuals or effective coordination among various elements. “Development” thus serves as the starting point and destination for high-quality population development. 

To promote high-quality population development, it is key to put people first. Embracing a historical perspective and upholding human dignity, we must create institutional, cultural, and market environments that respect, recognize, and care for individuals. We must plan and coordinate population development, focusing on adequate quantity, excellent quality, optimized structure, rational distribution, balanced development of internal population factors, and the coordinated development the population, the economy and society. We must improve the overall quality of the population, accelerate the construction of a Healthy China, implement the strategy of prioritizing education development, promote vocational education and skills training, and enhance the long-term development capabilities of the population. We must address the common needs and demands of various groups such as the elderly, women, rural residents, populations in central and western regions, and migrant population, continuously improving the quality of life for all.

Meanwhile, we need to optimize the gender and age structure of the population. This involves strengthening guidance for young people concerning marriage, reproduction, and family, actively fostering a social and cultural atmosphere that respects these values. It also entails accelerating the construction of a comprehensive, lifelong family support system, boosting the willingness to have children, reversing the long-standing decline in birth rates, and consolidating the foundation of high-quality population development.

Advancing the basic national policy of gender equality is key, eliminating obstacles to high-quality population development caused by existing gender imbalances. This includes improving social security systems and public service levels tailored to lifelong unmarried individuals, preemptively addressing potential social risks they may face or pose.

Addressing population aging involves leveraging elderly human resources, developing the silver economy, and tapping into the potential of younger seniors as a solution to structural labor shortages. By unleashing the consumption potential of the elderly through both supply and demand measures and leveraging their value in inheriting traditional Chinese culture, we can transform the challenges of population aging into potential resources. We also must balance urban-rural development. We must develop rural areas, particularly in the central and western regions, by adjusting and optimizing the regional population distribution.

It is crucial to create a social environment where everyone can contribute their abilities and benefit accordingly. This includes stimulating the labor potential and creativity of populations in rural, central and western regions, strengthening the efficiency of resource allocation for various production factors, and promoting better matching between labor supply and demand. Simultaneously advancing economic structural transformation and upgrading in rural areas of the central and western regions, with the assistance of the digital economy, can facilitate the elevation of economic and social development levels.

Expanding the positive impact of population mobility on regional economic and social development and spatial distribution optimization is vital. This can be achieved by promoting rational regional layout and coordinated development to build regional competitive advantages. Optimizing the distribution of population, particularly in the allocation of public resources and services for both children and the elderly in rural and urban areas, is essential for achieving balanced regional population development and ensuring an equitable distribution of economic and social development benefits. This addresses the economic prosperity proposition, social relations proposition, and people’s livelihood proposition inherent in “development.” 

Yang Juhua is a professor of ethnology and sociology at Minzu University of China.

Edited by WENG RONG