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When there were only a billion

A meeting in a city square in preparation for the 1982 census (photo source)

Graham Earnshaw was the Daily Telegraph correspondent in Beijing from 1980 to 1984, and he's been looking through his clippings, which seem to prove both that China has changed completely and also that China has stayed exactly the same. This spring and summer, Danwei will be publishing a series of these reports from the past. Below is today's resurrected item

Author's note: The question of how many people there are in China is unanswerable, but this article from 1982 marked the first time that the government officially stated that the number had topped one billion. The margin of error on most censuses around the world is considered to be 10% or more, so the real population of China today is almost certainly over 1.5 billion. Given the old cliche about lies, damned lies and Chinese statistics, there are several other dubious elements to the numbers given here, including the proportional gender split.

Billion Chinese and 25% are illiterate

By Graham Earnshaw in Peking
October 28, 1982

China's population has topped one billion, Peking Radio announced yesterday. The country's first census in almost two decades showed that, at midnight on July 1, there were 1,008,175,288 Chinese.

Nearly a quarter are illiterate, according to the census, and no fewer than 4,230,000 are in the armed forces.

About five million census takers throughout China were involved in the operation, the biggest head-count of human beings ever conducted.

The total was only slightly higher than the estimate of 1,000 million which the Chinese government has been using.

But there were reports of some families failing to declare children for fear of problems arising due to the government's strict birth control policy.

Peking Radio said China's population had risen 45 percent since the last census in 1964, when the total was just over 694 million, an average increase of more than 17 million people per year.

The census showed that there are marginally more Chinese men than women - 51.5% per cent to 48.5 per cent.

The percentage of China's population which belongs to the majority "Han" Chinese race has dropped slightly.

Other races, most notably the Tibetans, the Uigur people in Sinkiang and the Zhuang people in southwest China now account for 6.7 per cent of China's population, compared to only six per cent in the last census.

The minority races in China are not subject to the same birth control regulations as "Han" Chinese, who are now supposed to have no more than one child per couple.

The United Nations has given extensive assistance to China in the preparation for the census, for which China has used computers for the first time.

Full results of the census are not due to be published until 1984-85, although more details will emerge from the computers over the next two years.

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