China's Recent Fertility Decline: Evidence from Reconstructed Fertility Statistics

By Zhao, Zhongwei; Zhang, Xiaomu | Population, July-September 2010 | Go to article overview

China's Recent Fertility Decline: Evidence from Reconstructed Fertility Statistics


Zhao, Zhongwei, Zhang, Xiaomu, Population


China has recorded below-replacement fertility since the early 1990s, although the exact fertility level is a subject of controversy: some give a figure of 1.5 children per woman, and others 1.8. Detailed estimates of Chinese fertility are calculated from annual surveys of population change and numerous fertility surveys. Yet while the data are abundant, they are also limited, since many statistics are adjusted to take account of under-reporting of children in surveys and censuses, but no details or justification of the adjustment methods are given. Moreover, the various indicators are each adjusted in different ways, thereby adding to confusion. Zhongwei ZHAO and Xiaomu ZHANG provide an overview of the various official and scientific estimates of Chinese fertility since 1990 and explain the reasons behind the inconsistencies observed. They then propose a new estimation, based on the hypothesis that under-reporting of children in China is comparable to that observed in other Asian countries.

Keywords: China, fertility changes, fertility data, below replacement fertility, data quality

The study of China's fertility has been in a strange situation since the early 1990s. On the one hand, the growing number of censuses, fertility surveys and annual surveys of population change should provide sufficient data for detailed investigation of recent fertility decline; on the other hand, key fertility data are increasingly affected by problems of under-reporting and internal inconsistency that form an obstacle to such investigations. This is partly due to the fact that while the statistical authority has published some adjusted fertility statistics, it has been rather reluctant to release details of the technique used to make such adjustments since the late 1990s. As a consequence, researchers sometimes have to rely on limited information and various assumptions to estimate fertility, which has inevitably led to disparate results (Cai, 2008; Goodkind, 2004; Guo, 2004; Guo and Chen, 2007; Retherford et al., 2005; Scharping, 2007; Wang, 2003; Yu and Xie, 2000; Zhang, 2004; Zhai and Chen, 2007; Zhang and Cui, 2003; Zhang and Zhao, 2006). While some of these efforts have provided insights into China's recent fertility trends, this unsatisfactory situation and the controversy arising from it have created confusion, especially among users who rely primarily on secondary data sources for their information on China's fertility level. By comparing various officially reported fertility rates and reconstructing China's recent fertility statistics, this article further investigates the problems of collecting and publishing fertility data encountered since the early 1990s.(1) It then examines China's recent fertility level and addresses a number of related issues.

I. Major problems in China's recent fertility statistics

We will begin by looking at the problems associated with China's recent fertility statistics and the controversies surrounding China's recent fertility level.

First, China's statistical authority has routinely released the number of births and the crude birth rate (CBR) in recent years. The total fertility rate (TFR) has also been reported in official publications, though in a less regular fashion. These fertility statistics have often been adjusted for under-reporting or estimated on the basis of results obtained from the annual survey of population change (also referred to as annual population change survey or annual survey). However, details on how such adjustments or estimations are made have not been available since the late 1990s, (Zhang and Zhao, 2006) so it is not easy to determine the accuracy of these statistics.

Second, the Chinese authorities publish the age-specific fertility rate (ASFR) as a part of the annual population change survey results.(2) These statistics are generally not adjusted for under-reporting. Because the information on underreporting was not released in most of the years, it is difficult to determine the extent to which these unadjusted statistics under-represent actual fertility. …

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