China has recorded its first population decline in six decades. The country’s National Bureau of Statistics announced on Tuesday 24 January that there were 850,000 fewer people in mainland China at the end of 2022, compared with the previous year. There were 9.56 million births and 10.41 million deaths, the first time deaths have outnumbered births.
This is the first drop in population numbers since 1961, the final year of China’s Great Famine. The country reported the lowest birth rate on record – it was 6.77 births per 1,000 people last year, down from 7.52 the year before. How China responds to a demographic drop will likely have global implications, therefore these numbers also carry significant importance for the rest of the world. The demographer, Yi Fuxian, said: “China’s demographic and economic outlook is much bleaker than expected. China will have to undergo a strategic contraction and adjust its social, economic, defence, and foreign policies.” But what might these adjustments look like?
Housing prices, welfare, education, healthcare – reasons why people can’t afford to have children.
–commenter on Weibo
Before we address that, let’s explore why the population has declined for the first time since the early 1960s. During the 1960’s Mao Zedong’s collective farming and industrialisation produced a massive famine that killed tens of millions of people. China’s controversial one-child policy, introduced in 1979, slowed down population growth, and families that violated the rules were fined (and, in some cases, fired). As the culture historically favours boys, there were many forced abortions, and the gender ratio skewed massively towards boys from the 1980s onwards.
Due to governmental fears regarding the falling birth rate, the policy was scrapped in 2016 and married couples were allowed to have two children.
The ability of the Chinese economy to be the engine of global growth that it has been in the past looks increasingly in question.
–Roland Rajah, director of the Indo-Pacific Development Centre at the Lowry Institute
The central and local governments began enacting policies to reverse (or at least slow) this trend, including tax breaks and longer maternity leave. But this has not thus far worked, with some experts suggesting that moves to encourage childbirth were not matched by efforts to ease the burden of childcare, such as more help for working mothers or access to education. This was echoed by a commenter on Weibo, who said that the social pressures driving the low birth rate still remained: “Housing prices, welfare, education, healthcare – reasons why people can’t afford to have children. Now who dares to have children, housing prices are so expensive, no one wants to get married and even fall in love, let alone have children. Not talking about raising social security, only talking about raising the fertility rate, it’s all just crap.”
There were 9.56 million births and 10.41 million deaths, the first time deaths have outnumbered births.
It is estimated that India will replace China as the most populous nation in 2023, with currently a population of more than 1.4 billion – more than the total population of Africa. Demographers have been expecting that this would happen for a while, as the Chinese population aged and the Indian population grew, but these numbers have consolidated a sense of unease about what comes next. For context, this was not predicted to happen until the early 2030s. Paul Cheung, Singapore’s former chief statistician, said that China has “plenty of manpower” and “a lot of lead time” to manage the situation: “They are not in a doomsday scenario right away.” But the demographic time bomb is ticking, and all eyes are on what China does. Yi has suggested that China will have to improve relations with the West because the alternative is that a shrinking labour force will push up manufacturing costs in China and inflation elsewhere. Typically, countries resolve such dilemmas with immigration, but there’s no sign that China is likely to follow such a major policy shift.
It is estimated that India will replace China as the most populous nation in 2023
By 2035, a third of China’s current population (more than a third) is projected to be above the age of 60, which would put a strain on the country’s infrastructure and resources, due to a large ageing population. It’s entirely feasible that these shifts could dent the unspoken contract between the Communist party and the population, and perhaps trouble China’s superpower status if the state struggles to respond. Roland Rajah, director of the Indo-Pacific Development Centre at the Lowry Institute, offered a potentially pessimistic view. He said: “The latest numbers show that the birth rate has continued to decline quite rapidly. So the picture on China’s demographic problems keeps getting worse. The ability of the Chinese economy to be the engine of global growth that it has been in the past looks increasingly in question.”