China’s population grew at its slowest pace since the 1950s over the 10 years to 2020, government data shows, adding to pressure on Beijing to ramp up incentives for couples to have more children and avert an irreversible decline.
The population of mainland China increased 5.38 percent to 1.41 billion, according to the results of the country’s once-a-decade official census, announced on Tuesday.
That compares with an increase of 5.84 percent to 1.34 billion in the 2010 census, and double-digit percentage rises in all of China’s previous six official population surveys dating back to 1953.
Data showed a fertility rate of 1.3 children per woman for 2020 alone, on par with ageing societies like Japan and Italy. The shrill alarm for China’s policymakers is that the world’s second-biggest economy may already be in irreversible population decline without having first accumulated the household wealth of G7 nations.
The number meant China narrowly missed a target it set in 2016 to boost its population to about 1.42 billion by 2020, with a fertility rate of around 1.8.
Beijing changed its strict one-child policy in 2016 to allow families to have two children amid rising concern about China’s ageing population and shrinking workforce – but the move is yet to produce the expected baby boom to help offset the country’s ageing population.
“From the trend of population development in recent years, the population growth will continue to slow in the future,” said Ning Jizhe, head of the National Bureau of Statistics, speaking after the release of the census results.
“China’s population will reach a peak in the future, but the specific time is still uncertain. It is estimated that China’s total population will remain at more than 1.4 billion in the near future,” Ning said.
China has long worried about its population growth as it seeks to bolster its economic rise and boost prosperity. In recent months, Chinese state media has been increasingly bleak on the outlook, saying the population may start to shrink in the next few years.
The United Nations predicts the number of people living in mainland China will peak in 2030 before declining. But in late April, the Financial Times newspaper said the population actually fell in 2020 from a year earlier, citing unidentified people familiar with the matter.
The 2020 number was actually slightly higher than the 1.4005 billion in 2019 estimated in a smaller official survey released in February last year.
The number of people aged between 15 and 59 dropped nearly 7 percent, the census data showed, while those older than 60 rose more than 5 percent.
One bright spot in the data was an unexpected increase in the proportion of young people – 17.95 percent of the population was 14 or younger in 2020, compared with 16.6 percent in 2010.
There were around 12 million births in 2020, Ning told reporters. This is down from 14.65 million births the year before – when Beijing reported the slowest birthrate since Communist China was founded in 1949.
The average size of a family is now 2.62 people, census data showed, down from 3.10 people 10 years ago.
“It doesn’t take published census data to determine that China is facing a massive drop in births,” said Huang Wenzheng, a demography expert at the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing-based think-tank. Even if China’s population did not decline in 2020, the expert said, “it will in 2021 or 2022, or very soon”.
Young couples who might want to have a child face daunting challenges in China. Many share crowded apartments with their parents, while child care is expensive and maternity leave short.
According to a 2005 report by a state think-tank, it cost 490,000 yuan ($74,838) for a family in China to raise a child. By 2020, local media reported that the cost had risen to as high as 1.99 million yuan – four times the 2005 number.
Most single mothers are meanwhile excluded from medical insurance and social welfare payments, and many also worry giving birth could hurt their careers.
“Having a kid is a devastating blow to career development for women at my age,” said Annie Zhang, a 26-year-old insurance professional in Shanghai who got married in April last year.
“Secondly, the cost of raising a kid is outrageous (in Shanghai),” she said, in comments made before the 2020 census was published.
“You bid goodbye to freedom immediately after giving birth.”