Developing or developed? Assessing Chinese life expectancy

by China Power

Decades of breakneck economic growth have raised questions regarding China’s level of development. By some measures, China is still developing. In other ways, China compares favorably with developed nations. In terms of public health, however, China’s development is not yet complete.

In order for governments to effectively translate economic growth into improvements in the domestic level of development, political leaders must direct a country’s economic strength toward improving social conditions. While China’s economic transformation has generated considerable public resources, and China’s leaders have in recent decades dramatically improved domestic health conditions, China’s still faces challenges in terms of improving health outcomes.

Examining trends in China’s life expectancy and mortality rates for different age groups provides key insights into the strengths and weaknesses of China’s health care system. In this way, life expectancy trends shed light on one of China’s most important resources for cultivating power – its own people. This question assesses life expectancy in China and compares these trends with both developed and developing countries. As it is inadequate to simply examine China’s mortality trends at a national level, this question also examines the significant regional disparities in life expectancy that exist within the country.

What do the trends in China’s life expectancy say about its level of development?


China has made impressive gains in life expectancy given the scale of its territory and population, as well as its relatively low gross national income (GNI) per capita level. In the second half of the twentieth century, China increased its average life expectancy at birth from around 40 years to over 70 years, a feat that took many advanced economies nearly a century to achieve. The following analysis will first examine the reduction of child and adult mortality through health improvements and then describe the challenges that China still faces.

Arguably, improvements in the provision of public health services, particularly in infant and maternal health, have been the biggest factors in raising life expectancy. In Mainland China, the Millennium Development Goal to reduce child mortality by two-thirds was reached in 2008, seven years ahead of the target date. World Bank data indicates that between 1990 and 2015, China’s mortality rate for children under 5 fell from 53.8 to 10.7 per 1,000, a reduction of approximately 80 percent. Similarly, improvements in adult mortality rates have also raised China’s life expectancy levels. In 1990, the mortality rate for adults between age 15 and 60 stood at 151 per 1,000, and by 2015, it had been reduced to 85. According to recent World Health Organization reports, China has nearly eliminated diseases like malaria and measles, with a drop in the incidence of other communicable diseases. Recent research from The Lancet likewise reports a 60–90 percent decrease in death from infectious diseases broadly in this period. Both improvements in infant and adult mortality have led to significant increases in overall life expectancy, which stood at 69 years in 1990 and reached 76.1 years in 2015. Read more…

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