Festival brings to fore importance of demographic data
Spring Festival, celebrating the start of the Chinese Lunar New Year, is unique beyond being the most important festival in the world's most populous country.
Not only is it the longest holiday that most workers in China are entitled to, it also produces the largest annual human population movement in the world, thanks to the age-old tradition of family reunions that are at the center of the occasion.
This year, the Year of the Pig, which is strongly believed to be associated with good fortune, has seen hundreds of millions of workers based in cities and big towns returning to their smaller towns and villages of origin to reunite and feast with their families－including their parents, and, for many, also their spouses and children. The official forecast is that this year, nearly 3 billion trips will be generated during the 40-day travel rush from Jan 21 to March 1.
While it might not be so obvious, this huge social phenomenon both shapes and is shaped by the sheer size and distribution of China's population linked to births, deaths and migration, and the way these three sets of vital events interact.
That the festival triggers such huge human movements each year is linked to how rapid urbanization has driven and been driven by China's historically high annual economic growth rates over the past four decades of reform and opening-up.
With the benefits of migration increasingly visible, and the main obstacles to rural-to-urban migration removed (including through massively expanded transport infrastructures), the number of internal migrants has increased by 35 times between 1982 and 2018.
However, China's household registration system complicates the migration process. For many reasons, a major unintended effect of migration has been the creation of large populations of left-behind family members－elderly parents, spouses and children, each of these subsets totaling tens of millions.
Beyond the gift-sharing and merrymaking of family reunions, Spring Festival provides opportunities for improving care arrangements for left-behind parents, spouses and children.
This social value of the festival is important since we know that despite ongoing improvements, left-behind children and elderly people have poorer access to quality education, health and social protection services, compared with their peers in the big towns and cities.
It could be the number of deaths among the elderly in rural areas are at their lowest in February and March after discounting for the effects of winter's cold snaps. Currently, about one-fifth of the population aged 80 and above have moderate to severe disabilities and chronic illnesses, but it is also a fact that happier people cope better with illness and disability, regardless of age. Several studies in China clearly show that a key factor in elderly people's life satisfaction is spending quality time with their children and close friends.
It also wouldn't be surprising if monthly births registrations in many villages and small towns show a spike around November and December this year, as a result of the coming together for an extended period of millions of spouses during the Spring Festival.
Furthermore, Chinese society places a high premium on marriage and childbearing within marriage for young adults, and Spring Festival is the peak time for matchmaking in rural areas. So, we may expect this year's holiday period to have yielded above average levels of successful matchmaking of future spouses by pro-active parents. This social function of the festival should not be overlooked, especially with the persistently rising age of people getting married for the first time in China.
Demographic data on births, deaths and population movements may appear boring, but they matter a lot. They are important to understanding how humans function as individuals and as members of society.
China's development is now more focused on the quality of economic growth, including spreading its benefits to all citizens irrespective of their life circumstances. This emphasis aligns well with the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda of leaving no one behind, and putting the furthest behind first.
However, without greater attention to the collection, disaggregation and utilization of data on key aspects of population trends, this quest will be more difficult to accomplish.
Developing sound social and economic policies and making smart infrastructure investments require a full understanding of the key features of the population at every level－its size, gender and spatial distribution, and age structure－now and in the future.
The author is the resident representative for China of the United Nations Population Fund.