Under-5 mortality in 2,851 Chinese counties, 1996–2012: a subnational assessment of achieving MDG 4 goals in China

Published October 25, 2015, in The Lancet (opens in a new window)


In the past two decades, the under-5 mortality rate in China has fallen substantially, but progress with regard to the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 4 at the subnational level has not been quantified. We aimed to estimate under-5 mortality rates in mainland China for the years 1970 to 2012.


We estimated the under-5 mortality rate for 31 provinces in mainland China between 1970 and 2013 with data from censuses, surveys, surveillance sites, and disease surveillance points. We estimated under-5 mortality rates for 2,851 counties in China from 1996 to 2012 with the reported child mortality numbers from the Annual Report System on Maternal and Child Health. We used a small area mortality estimation model, spatiotemporal smoothing, and Gaussian process regression to synthesize data and generate consistent provincial and county-level estimates. We compared progress at the county level with what was expected on the basis of income and educational attainment using an econometric model. We computed Gini coefficients to study the inequality of under-5 mortality rates across counties.


In 2012, the lowest provincial-level under-5 mortality rate in China was about five per 1,000 livebirths, lower than in Canada, New Zealand, and the USA. The highest provincial-level under-5 mortality rate in China was higher than that of Bangladesh. Twenty-nine provinces achieved a decrease in under-5 mortality rates twice as fast as the MDG 4 target rate; only two provinces will not achieve MDG 4 by 2015. Although some counties in China have under-5 mortality rates similar to those in the most developed nations in 2012, some have similar rates to those recorded in Burkina Faso and Cameroon. Despite wide differences, the inter-county Gini coefficient has been decreasing. Improvement in maternal education and the economic boom have contributed to the fall in child mortality; more than 60% of the counties in China had rates of decline in under-5 mortality rates significantly faster than expected. Fast reduction in under-5 mortality rates have been recorded not only in the Han population, the dominant ethnic majority in China, but also in the minority populations. All top-ten minority groups in terms of population sizes have experienced annual reductions in under-5 mortality rates faster than the MDG 4 target at 4.4%.


The reduction of under-5 mortality rates in China at the country, provincial, and county level is an extraordinary success story. Reductions of under-5 mortality rates faster than 8.8% (twice MDG 4 pace) are possible. Extremely rapid declines seem to be related to public policy in addition to socioeconomic progress. Lessons from successful counties should prove valuable for China to intensify efforts for those with unacceptably high under-5 mortality rates.


National Institute on Aging - Center for Demography and Economics of Aging, Grant number #P30AG047845

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Wang Y, Li X, Zhou M, et al. Under-5 mortality in 2,851 Chinese counties, 1996–2012: a subnational assessment of achieving MDG 4 goals in China. The Lancet. 2015 Oct 25. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(15)00554-1.