China‘s birthrate dropped last year to its lowest level since the formation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, adding to concerns of a long-term challenge for the government, as the ageing society and shrinking workforce pile pressure on a slowing economy.
To avoid a demographic crisis, the Communist government abolished the one-child policy in 2015 to allow people to have two children, but the change has not resulted in an increase in pregnancies.
In 2019, the birthrate stood at 10.48 per 1,000 people, down slightly from the year before, according to data from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) released on Friday.
The number of births has now fallen for three consecutive years. Still, there were 14.65 million babies born in 2019.
Many young couples in China are reluctant to have children because they cannot afford to pay for healthcare and education alongside expensive housing
Meanwhile, divorce rates are hitting records. In the first three quarters of 2019, about 3.1 million couples filed for divorce, compared with 7.1 million couples getting married, according to data from the Ministry of Civil Affairs.
He Yafu, an independent demographer based in southern Guangdong province, said the total number of births in 2019 was the lowest since 1961, the last year of a famine that left tens of millions dead. He said there were approximately 11.8 million births that year.
US-based academic Yi Fuxian, senior scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told the AFP news agency that even though China has abolished its one-child policy, there has been a shift in the mindset of the population, with people now used to smaller families.
According to official figures, China’s population stood at 1.4 billion by the end of 2019, increasing by 4.67 million from the year before.
But Fuxian believes that China’s population is over-estimated, and according to his work, the real population “began to decline in 2018”.
While China’s limit on family sizes could be removed altogether eventually, the demographer said citizens are still being punished for having three children, even though some areas have reduced punitive measures.
However, China has recently signalled that it might end limits on family size altogether. A draft of the new Civil Code, due to be introduced at the annual session of the rubber-stamp parliament in March, omits all mention of “family planning”.
The one-child policy was introduced by former leader Deng Xiaoping to curb population growth and promote economic development, with exceptions for rural families whose first-born was a female, and for ethnic minorities.
The measure was mainly enforced through fines but was also notorious for forced abortions and sterilisations.
The result was dramatic: Fertility rates dropped from 5.9 births per woman in 1970 to about 1.6 in the late 1990s. The rate was below the level needed to replace the population – 2.1 births per woman.
The stagnated birthrate could pose a problem for the economy in the future, as the country’s workforce continued to shrink last year.
The NBS said 896.4 million people were of working age, between 16 and 59, in 2019, a drop from the 897.3 million in 2018.
This marks the eighth consecutive year of decline. The workforce is expected to decline by as much as 23 percent by 2050.
“The demographic problem is a slow, long-term one,” He told AFP.
“Because China’s education levels have been going up, in the short term, the population issue should not impact growth too much,” He told the news agency.
“But in the long run, if the trend continues, it would pose a huge drag on economic growth.”