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The Australian National University

China Numbers

Central, Hong Kong (1993) Photo: Lois Conner

Central, Hong Kong (1993)
Photograph by Lois Conner

Numbers provide a common basis for communication about development and change, as evidenced by the broad spectrum of people who collect, articulate, concoct and analyse them. This research theme draws upon the wealth of information provided by numbers to deepen our understanding of China's economy, geography, demography, environment, history, politics and society. As such, it overlaps and engages with each of the Centre's other thematic groupings in ways both subtle and direct.

The Chinese have always been fascinated by numbers and there are many China numbers that now fascinate the world. With economic growth averaging 10% per annum for the last three decades, China has been transformed into one of the world's most dynamic market economies. Regardless of debates about the reliability of Chinese statistics or how GDP is measured (debates that are valid in their own right), China is set to become the world's largest economy by 2030. Already it is world's largest exporter, with its US$1.2 trillion worth of exports accounting for over 10% of the world total in 2009. Yet this enviable economic performance is accompanied by some far less enviable numbers. Recently becoming the world's largest emitter of carbon dioxide at over 7 billion tonnes per annum, the country is committed to 40-45% emission reductions by 2020 compared with 2005 levels. And despite such rapid growth, close to 200 million of the world's "bottom billion" poorest people are living in China today. While China's one-child policy has yielded clear benefits in terms of per capita GDP and poverty reduction, it has also given rise to problems associated with ageing (with 12.3% of the population over the age of 60 in 2010 projected to double by 2030), the 4-2-1 family structure and gender imbalances (with the ratio of 108 males per 100 females being the highest in the world). The magnitude of these achievements and problems is at least part of what makes China studies so fascinating.

The numbers above – and millions more besides – provide starting points for academic inquiry into China and its changing role in the world. How does China's growing economic strength change its geopolitical role in supranational institutions, from the G2 to the G20, from ASEAN +3 to ASEAN +10? Has China's export success come at the expense of other nations or, as in Australia's case, has it contributed to their own economic strength? Are China's emission targets achievable and, if not, what does this mean for the global environment? For each of these research questions, relatively objective issues of measurement and method are juxtaposed with far more subjective issues of interpretation and value. These issues deserve careful consideration in the presentation of "facts" that will help shape international and local perceptions about China.

Consider the potential research emanating from just one number: the sex ratio of males to females born in China, which at 1.13 (according to the CIA World Fact Book, 2011) is the highest sex ratio imbalance of any country on earth. China's gender imbalances, as reflected in this simple number, have far-reaching consequences for social and economic development both within and outside China's borders. To go to one extreme of the economic consequences, Wei Shangjin and Du Xingyuan at Columbia University have recently argued that: "The sex ratio imbalance is not the sole reason for global imbalances, it could be one of the significant, and yet thus far unrecognised, factors". Beyond the many interesting questions relating to the "economics of sex", there are endless questions surrounding the historical and political causes and the demographic, social, cultural and everyday implications of living in a country in which an estimated 40 million women are "missing". As with all numbers, without the words to contextualise, explain and challenge it, the numerical value of China's sex ratio is meaningless. Yet numbers can measure, inform, and reflect development and change in ways that words alone cannot. It of course matters greatly to measure and report numbers accurately as a first step. But this is only the beginning.

Updated:  4 March 2013/Responsible Officer:  Director, China in the World /Page Contact:  China in the World