China is experiencing a population decline for the first time in over 60 years
Official data showed today, Tuesday, that amid slowing birth rates, mounting financial pressures, and changing social norms, China saw its population shrink last year for the first time in more than six decades.
The world’s most populous country faces a looming demographic crisis as its workforce ages, which analysts warn could stifle economic growth and add pressure to strained public coffers.
Analysts point to the rising cost of living – as well as an increasing number of women in the workforce and pursuing higher education – as reasons behind the slowdown.
“Who dares to have children?” said a Shanghai resident in his 30s on Tuesday.
“Unemployment is too high, the coronavirus has destroyed everything, and there is nothing we can do. Next year we will see slow growth again.”
The National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) reported that the population of mainland China was about 14,117,500,000 at the end of 2022, a decrease of 850,000 from the end of the previous year.
The authority said that the number of births reached 9.56 million, while the number of deaths reached 10.41 million.
The last time China’s population declined was in the early 1960s when the country was battling the worst famine in its modern history, as a result of Mao Zedong’s disastrous agricultural policy known as the Great Leap Forward.
China ended its strict one-child policy – which it imposed in the 1980s due to overpopulation fears – in 2016 and began allowing couples to have three children in 2021.
But that fails to reverse the demographic decline of a country that has long relied on its vast workforce as an engine of economic growth.
“The population is likely to trend downward from here in the coming years,” said Qiwi Zhang of Pinpoint Asset Management.
“China cannot rely on the demographic dividend as a structural engine of economic growth,” he added.
“Economic growth should depend more on productivity growth, which is driven by government policies.”
“a lot of pressure”
Xujian Ping, a researcher at the Australian University of Victoria, told AFP that the one-child policy means that the Chinese are used to small families.
For those who were just children as a result of this policy, “there is a lot of pressure when it comes to taking care of your parents and improving your quality of life in the future,” a young woman in Beijing told AFP. (AFP).
For those with children, balancing work and parenting can be an impossible task.
“For many women, having a baby means they have to give up a lot of the things they want to do,” explained Nancy, the 32-year-old e-commerce worker.
News of the population decline soon made its way onto China’s heavily censored Internet.
“Without children, the country and the nation have no future,” wrote one commenter on the Twitter-like Weibo service.
Another comment from a well-known “patriotic” influencer reads, “Having children is also a social responsibility.”
But others again pointed to the difficulties of raising children in modern China.
Someone said: “I love my mother, I will never be a mother.”
Another said, “No one thinks about why we don’t want to have (children) and we don’t want to get married.”
“Policy package required”
Independent demographer He Yafu also cited “the decline in the number of women of childbearing age, which fell by five million per year between 2016 and 2021” — the result of an aging population — as a reason for the decline in the birth rate.
Many local authorities have already launched measures to encourage couples to have children.
The major southern city of Shenzhen, for example, now offers birth allowances of up to 10,000 yuan (about $1,500) and benefits are paid until the child is 3 years old.
But analysts argue that more needs to be done.
“A comprehensive policy package covering childbirth, parenting and education is needed to reduce the cost of raising children,” researcher Peng told AFP.
“The job insecurity of postpartum women in particular should be addressed.”
The Chinese population could decline annually by 1.1% on average, according to a study by the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences updated last year and shared with AFP.
China would have had a population of just 587 million in 2100, less than half of what it is today, according to the most pessimistic predictions of this team of demographers.
India is set to overthrow China this year as the world’s most populous country, according to the United Nations.
“The declining and aging population will be a real concern for China,” Peng said.
“It will have a profound impact on China’s economy from present to 2100.”