Most Populous Countries: How India Overtook China

(Last Updated On: May 2, 2023)

You’ve probably gone most of your life thinking China was the most populous country; China’s population density and manufacturing ubiquity are pretty big Western pop-culture staples. Maybe at some point in the last couple years you’ve heard that India was catching up to China in population, and maybe put it out of your mind. But now that things are changing, with India overtaking China has the most populous country, you might be curious as to how that happened—so let’s look at the most populous countries and our population billionaires.

The Most Populous Countries

As we alluded to earlier, of the most populated countries China and India are the only ones whose counts surpass one billion. We’re going to run off of the United Nations Population Fund’s (UNFPA) population estimates for 2023, wherein it was estimated India’s population would surpass China’s by about 3 million by mid-2023. Which, at the time of this post’s writing, is about now. 

Based on those estimates, India’s population was expected to hit 1.429 billion people by mid-2023—in contrast to China’s 1.426 billion people. With the zeroes included that’s 1,429,000,000. 

Further Reading: What is a Billion? Understanding Large Numbers | How Big Is 4 Billion? 20 Ways You Told Us

America comes in at a very distant third, at only between 330 and 340 million. 

Anyway, based on those UNFPA estimates, here are the 10 most populated countries.

  1. India: 1,429,000,000
  2. China: 1,426,000,000
  3. The United States: 340,000,000
  4. Indonesia: 227,500,000
  5. Pakistan: 240,500,000
  6. Nigeria: 223,800,000
  7. Brazil: 216,400,000
  8. Bangladesh: 173,000,000
  9. Russia: 144,400,000
  10. Mexico: 128,500,000

Trends

The change between China’s and India’s ranking is probably the one of particular interest to you. You’re probably unsurprised to know that this upset is pretty unsurprising; China’s population peaked in 2022—declining for the first time in 60 years during 2022. Currently, China’s population is on track to fall below 1 billion by 2100. On average, 86,000 kids are born per day in India; in China it’s about 49,400. 

It’s generally understood that a fertility rate of 2.1 is needed to maintain a population, assuming mortality rates and migration rates remain constant. You might see this referred to as a “replacement threshold.” In the 70s, both China and India had fertility rates hovering around 6, but here’s where they diverge. Fertility rates in China fell to about 3 by the end of the 70s, a timespan of about 7 years. In India, it took about 30-35 years for its fertility rate to fall to 3. 

The One-Child Policy

Attempts were made in both countries to lower birth rates; you’re likely vaguely familiar with the one-child policy implemented in 1980 and abolished in 2015. The one-child policy was enforced in a lot of ways, the more extreme methods of enforcement you probably heard whispers about consisting of fines, sterilizations, or abortions. Other methods of enforcement included obstructing the careers of parents with multiple children—including but not limited to the delaying of salary disbursement. Incentives, particularly in urban regions, were offered to families pledging to have a single child; these included having easier access to housing. Which is a super powerful incentive when housing is incredibly scarce and expensive in China. In 2021, the average housing costs in urban areas were almost 30 times the average salary. The policy wasn’t enforced all that equitably (probably unsurprising), so you can imagine reception was quite mixed. In urban regions, the policy was far more popular owing to increasing costs of living making incentives more palatable. 

In rural provinces, things were far more mixed; and this is where enforcement of sterilizations or pregnancy terminations was more common. Culturally, sons were more desirable to rural families for farmwork—which is a big part in why the ratio of men to women in China is so skewed. China’s population (in 2015) had an estimated 32 to 36 million more men than it otherwise would have had naturally due to the traditional favoring of male children over female children. Beyond being a reason for a sharp and continued decline in China’s birth rate (as many men simply won’t get to marry in China as-is), it’s led to a pretty bad increase in violence against women—including but not limited to human trafficking.

All that in mind, China is now trying to elevate its birth rate by incentivizing women to have kids. 

How Did India Overtake China?

Policies in India were generally far less sweeping than China’s one-child policy, though India did introduce programs to try and curb its population growth as far back as 1950. However, the means by which this agenda was enacted differed by state. Some states invested in human capital, for example by emphasizing women empowerment (like higher education). These states experienced a faster decline in fertility rate than states that instead implemented coercive mass-sterilization campaigns (who’d have thunk?). 

Right now, India’s fertility rate hovers around 2; its fertility rate has declined far more steadily than China’s. But even though the fertility rate might fall, the population will still grow for a while. It’s like how if you turn off the tap, water still keeps coming out for a bit. This is because the big generation of babies still has yet to become parents, and even if they have less kids than their parents it’s still going to be a lot of kids. This is why India’s population is expected to keep growing until the 2060s. 

This means that India’s median age will continue to increase, and its working-population will soon see a large increase by extension. In aggregate, India is seeing a pretty big burst in its contributions to the global workforce, which is why many manufacturing jobs have moved from China to India in recent years and why India’s economy is one of the fastest-growing. This distribution isn’t even though; many states in Northern India have fertility rates below a replacement value while the opposite is true in Southern states. 


Now that you’ve read this post, you can probably make some pretty educated guesses on what the population landscape will look like come 2050 here.

About the Author:

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Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.

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