This article tracks how China’s population came to be practically measurable, not just in terms of its size and distribution but in terms of its dynamics, and how the determination of these dynamics inscribed the population into a broad reorganization of economic governmentality whose principle was the rational maximization of China’s “national capital.” It argues that the demographization of China’s population produced it as an economic factor, a biomass of “living capital,” which could be related to the problem of a national economy by means of an energistically conceived general equivalent, vitality (shengming jingli). Rather than investigating the meanings that were ascribed to the “population problem” (renkou wenti) and the contours of public debates about it, this article focuses on the concrete statistical techniques that produced it in the first place and inflected it from the very start with an economistic logic. After outlining the historical development of vital statistics in republican China, the article argues that these technologies of knowledge were, in their basic epistemological form, identical to those used to track any other kind of capital, for example, money capital. Herein lies the link—in China, but also more generally in this period—between biopolitics and economic (bourgeois) nationalism, one that is not incidental or accidental, but immanent and formal.

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