The ecological footprint (EF) can be used to investigate relationships between population, environment and development. In China, the per caput EF is estimated to have increased by 83% between 1981 (0.82 ha caput-1) and 2000 (1.49 ha caput-1), to about 1.31 times China's area (including its oceanic territory), while the ecological deficit increased from 0.066 ha caput-1 in 1981 to 0.735 ha caput-1 in 2000. Over this period, the proportions of six sub-footprint types have changed considerably: the percentages of arable, fossil energy and forest land decreased from 44.8%, 41.5% and 4.1% to 27.1%, 40.1% and 3.0%, respectively; while sea, pasture and built-up land percentages increased from 3.8%, 4.4% and 1.3% to 15.2%, 12.4% and 2.2%, respectively. The production coefficients of gross domestic product (GDP) to the EF of China increased from 584 RMB ha-1 in 1981, to 1522 RMB ha-1 in 2000, reflecting an increasing efficiency in resource use. The EF correlates positively with disposable income and expenditure, which can be described by income and expenditure elasticity. Some measures are suggested to decrease the Chinese ecological deficit on the road to sustainability.