Super-Performers

Peter Laslett

  • Communiqué of the State Statistical Bureau of the People’s Republic of China on Major Figures in the 1982 Population Census
    Beijing, 6 pp, October 1982
  • Patriarchy and Socialist Revolution in China by Judith Stacey
    California, 324 pp, £24.25, December 1983, ISBN 0 520 04825 3
  • Long Lives: The Chinese Elderly and the Communist Revolution by Deborah Davis-Friedmann
    Harvard, 160 pp, £17.00, November 1983, ISBN 0 674 53860 9
  • Beyond Sixty-Five: The Dilemma of Old Age in America’s Past by Carole Haber
    Cambridge, 181 pp, £17.50, May 1983, ISBN 0 521 25096 X

China is a poor country. In 1978 the World Bank estimated that gross national product was no more than $290 per person. Yet everything which happens in China is inevitably important if only because the country is so very, very big. The Third Census of the People’s Republic, taken in July 1982, recorded 1,031,882, 511 Chinese, including, we may notice, the 18 million in ‘Taiwan Province’ and five and a half million in the ‘Hongkong and Macao Region’. These were not unexpected totals. Western demographers do not seem likely to quarrel with them, or to doubt that China is the first political society to attain a billion people, and to include a quarter of the population of the world. What does give us pause, and may reveal something of the efficient working of that ancient and colossal polity, is the great rapidity with which the counting was carried out. The preliminary results were published on 27 October 1982, 17 weeks after the count, which is only ten weeks longer than our own record in 1981. Moreover, all this happened in a country where automatic computation was virtually unknown, and where, the Head of the Census informs us, over five million enumerators and over a million census supervisors had to be mobilised and trained. Computer analysis is now going on, using machinery which the United Nations has helped to provide. This will yield the detailed statistics which Chinese administrators so urgently need from their first national enumeration since 1964. In China, according to the Census Communiqué, about 23.5 per cent of all persons are illiterate or semi-literate, about a third of the population has no more than a primary-school education, and not much more than one in 200 has been to a university. Yet these levels are markedly better than they were in 1964, in spite of all that happened in between. Perhaps we need not be so surprised at the rapidity of the calculations, since, in a sense, arithmetic has always been mechanised. The use of the abacus is pretty well universal.

There are, however, other circumstances which convince us that, in all the techniques required for swift action on a scale entirely unparalleled elsewhere, the Chinese are outstanding performers. This certainly seems to be the case in demographic matters whose complexity and difficulty have defeated richer, better-educated, smaller and in every way more ‘modern’ societies. ‘Super-performers’, the American academic authorities call them, and the words in which these high experts describe the Chinese achievement in the reduction of mortality since the People’s Republic was founded in 1949 are worth quotation: ‘China has probably gained over 1.5 years of life expectancy for each year since then. This is a record of sustained and rapid progress which has seldom been matched. Much of the credit is due to unusual emphasis on simple preventive measures, which are widely distributed by auxiliary medical personnel’ – that is to say, the famous bare-foot doctors. ‘This large nation,’ the Americans continue, ‘seems to have attained a relatively advanced health status hitherto confined to developed and small developing countries ... The speed and extent of China’s achievement in mortality control are unprecedented among the world’s populous countries.’ This firmly-worded admission was finally made after years of doubt as to the justifiability of the figures and of the claims based upon them. It is founded upon the most rigorous possible analysis of the evidence.

China now has an expectation of life at birth in the late sixties – a level which was reached in Britain only about twenty-five years ago. At the higher ages the comparison is equally striking. The Chinese elderly go on living for at least two-thirds of the time that the elderly do in our own country. All this must be due to their extraordinary success in reducing mortality. It is nevertheless the case that at the present time the proportion of the later age groups in the Chinese population is low, less than half of what it is with us. For it is not usually mortality but fertility which affects the proportion of persons in the later years.

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