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The People of Asia


The continent’s total population (2008 estimate) is 4.05 billion. East Asia contains about 40 percent of Asia’s population, and South and Central Asia together contain another 40 percent. They are followed by Southeast Asia, with 15 percent of the continent’s population, and West Asia, with 5 percent. China and India together contain some 2.3 billion people, or more than one-third of the world’s population. Asia’s overall population density of 131 persons per sq km (339 per sq mi) of land area is the highest of all continents.

The annual rate of population increase for the continent as a whole is 1.1 percent. The highest growth rates—in excess of 2.5 percent per year—are found in Yemen, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Laos, and Jordan.

Population growth in South Asia is particularly concerning. Although India’s growth rate declined during the 1990s, its population is still projected to grow to 1.45 billion by the year 2025. Pakistan and Bangladesh are also expected to grow considerably. Even with significant improvements to family planning, the combined population of the three countries is projected to reach the alarming level of 1.80 billion by 2025—nearly one-quarter of the world’s total projected population.

In contrast, a stringent family planning program has reduced China’s growth rate to 0.6 percent. Indonesia, the third largest country in Asia, has reduced its population growth rate to 1.2 percent per year, also through effective family planning. Japan, Singapore, and Taiwan have growth rates well below 2 percent.

Countries that have experienced high growth rates over the last decade have youthful populations. More than 40 percent of the populations of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Laos, Mongolia, Nepal, and Pakistan are under 16 years of age. The population growth rates will inevitably increase as these children become adults and begin having their own children. On the other hand, less than 25 percent of the populations of Japan, Hong Kong, and Singapore are under 16. The cost of supporting aging populations is a major concern of both Japan and Singapore.

In most Asian countries the majority of the population live in small rural settlements where they work in agriculture or local services and industries linked to agriculture. More than three—quarters of the people in Nepal, Laos, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Thailand are rural dwellers. In Bhutan, more than 90 percent of the population are rural residents.

Urbanization has proceeded rapidly in recent decades. The urban population accounts for a majority in Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, Jordan, Syria, Israel, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. The Philippines and Malaysia also have relatively large urban populations. In total, Asia accounts for more than half the world’s urban population. That proportion is expected to increase because Asian cities are generally growing at about twice the rate of overall populations.

South and Southeast Asia are dotted with large cities that developed as a result of European economic and political domination. Among these are Mumbai, Kolkata, Colombo, George Town (Penang), Goa, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), Jakarta, Karachi, Kuala Lumpur, Chennai (formerly Madras), Manila, Phnom Penh, Singapore, Surabaya, and Yangon (formerly known as Rangoon). Only Bangkok is not a former colonial center, but it resembles the others in most other respects. Even in China, many of the larger coastal cities were strongly influenced by European presence. In Japan, more than 77 percent of the population is urban. In most other countries the urban population ranges between 20 percent and 40 percent. In Southwest and Central Asia, ancient traditions of city building were reinforced by Islamic culture, giving rise to cities such as Baghdad, Damascus, Istanbul, Jerusalem, and Tehran (Teheran). Modern urbanization is reflected in cities such as Ankara, Beirut, Tel Aviv-Yafo (Tel Aviv-Jaffa), and Toshkent. But urban populations are a small proportion of the whole in some countries of Southwest and Central Asia. Concerns about the unequal distribution of population have encouraged governments to develop resettlement policies. Indonesia’s transmigration program, which began in the 1960s, has focused on encouraging people to shift from the crowded islands of Java and Bali to more sparsely populated locations in Sumatra, Borneo, Sulawesi, and Papua. In the mid-1990s, however, the program was being scaled back due to high costs and the exhaustion of quality land for resettlement. Malaysia has run a generally successful resettlement scheme. In Vietnam, mismanagement and a lack of adequate funding have caused its resettlement plan to be far less successful.

Fears about the emergence of very large cities have prompted governments to try to harness their rates of growth. Attempts to halt migration to large cities have been generally unsuccessful in market economies. Jakarta was proclaimed a “closed city” in the 1970s, but it had little impact on migrants. In the socialist countries of the region, such as China and Vietnam, controls on migration to cities have been more successful. As these countries have shifted to a market economy, however, previous restrictions on population movement have been eroded and cities have become magnets for displaced rural people as in the rest of Asia.

Another strategy has been to divert migrants toward secondary cities and smaller towns. The South Korean government has successfully fostered the growth of industrial cities in the south, such as Gwangju and Daejeon, in order to ease pressure on Seoul. Thailand—concerned by the dominance of Bangkok, where nearly two-thirds of all Thai urban dwellers live—has fostered growth in northern cities such as Chiang Mai. But there has been little impact on Bangkok’s population. Likewise, Manila remains the dominant urban center in the Philippines despite attempts to attract industry and people to alternative locations, such as Cebu.

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