China’s population shrinks for first time in over 60 years

China’s population has fallen for the first time since 1961 when the country battled the worst famine in its modern history under Mao Zedong’s disastrous agricultural policy.

An elderly person holds a child near lanterns decorating a shop in Beijing, China.
Birth rates have plunged in China at the same time as its population has begun to age [Tingshu Wang/Reuters]

China’s population has decreased for the first time in more than 60 years, official data shows — a historic turn for the world’s most populous nation that is now expected to see a long period of population decline.

The country of 1.4 billion has seen birth rates plunge to record lows as its workforce ages, a drop that analysts warn could stymie economic growth and pile pressure on the country’s strained public finances.

The mainland Chinese population stood at approximately 1,411,750,000 at the end of 2022, Beijing’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) reported on Tuesday, a decrease of 850,000 from the end of the previous year.

The number of births was 9.56 million, the NBS said, while the number of deaths stood at 10.41 million. Men also continued to outnumber women in China by 722.06 million to 689.69 million.

The new figures mark the first fall in China’s population since 1961, when the country battled the worst famine in its modern history, caused by Mao Zedong’s disastrous agricultural policy known as the Great Leap Forward.

China has long been the world’s most populous nation, but is expected to soon be overtaken by India, if it has not already.

Estimates put India’s population at more than 1.4 billion.

The head of the NBS, Kang Yi, said people should not worry about China’s population decline as the country’s overall labour supply still exceeds demand.

Though China ended its strict “one-child policy” in 2016 and in 2021 allowed couples to have three children, the policy change has not reversed the demographic decline.

In the long term, United Nations experts believe, China’s population could reduce by 109 million by the year 2050, more than triple the decline of their previous forecast in 2019.

‘Demographic crisis’

Al Jazeera’s Katrina Yu, reporting from Beijing, said China has tried many initiatives to avoid a “demographic crisis”, including dropping the one-child policy and increasing parental leave as well as subsidies. However, such efforts do not appear to have worked.

“If we delve further into the figures it says that China’s birth rate was 6.77 births per 1,000 people and its death rate has climbed to the highest that it’s ever been as well,” she said.

While “health authorities have been scratching their heads” and asking why people are having fewer children, Yu said major reasons appear to involve the rising costs of living in Chinese cities and the COVID-19 pandemic response.

“I think one of the reasons is the soaring cost of living here in China, especially in the cities when it comes to housing, when it comes to education, people are delaying marriage or choosing not to get married or not to have children at all,” she said.

The COVID-19 pandemic was also a significant factor as China has just emerged from a three-year, strict “zero-COVID” policy that involved “huge uncertainty” and disruption to people’s lives. People were choosing not to have children or expand their families during that time, Yu said.

The economic effect of a declining population is also a prime concern for China, as for decades, the country’s large working-age population — almost 70 percent of people in 2010 — was the engine behind growth in the economy.

“Now that working age is shrinking and the number of elderly people in China, that is growing … Many experts are concerned that what this ultimately means is that China has failed to become rich before it’s gotten old,” Yu said.

Xiujian Peng, a senior research fellow at the Centre of Policy Studies at Australia’s University of Victoria, told Al Jazeera that the fertility rate in China is now much lower than countries such as the United States, Australia, and “even lower than Japan”.

China’s government likely did not expect such a significant drop in the population figures, she said, as authorities had already relaxed the one-child policy. However, the effect of COVID-19 on job insecurity and other factors such as the rising costs of living in China, particularly housing and education, has meant that policies to reverse the decline in fertility have not worked.

Chinese people are also “getting used to the small family because of the decades-long one-child policy”, she told the AFP news agency.

“The Chinese government has to find effective policies to encourage birth, otherwise, fertility will slip even lower,” she said.

“It will have a profound impact on China’s economy from the present through to 2100.”

‘I love my mother, I will not be a mother’

Many local authorities in China have already launched measures to encourage couples to have children.

In Shenzhen city, for example, authorities now offer a birth bonus and allowances paid until the child is three years old. A couple who has their first baby will automatically receive 3,000 yuan ($444), an amount that rises to 10,000 yuan ($1,480) for their third. In the country’s east, the city of Jinan has since January 1 paid a monthly stipend of 600 yuan ($89) for couples that have a second child.

The new data was the top trending topic on Chinese social media after the figures were released on Tuesday. One hashtag, #Isitreallyimportanttohaveoffspring? (Is it really important to have offspring?) had hundreds of millions of hits.

“The fundamental reason why women do not want to have children lies not in themselves, but in the failure of society and men to take up the responsibility of raising children. For women who give birth this leads to a serious decline in their quality of life and spiritual life,” posted one netizen with the username Joyful Ned.

“Without children, the state and the nation have no future,” another comment on the Twitter-like Weibo service read.

“Having children is also a social responsibility,” another comment from a well-known “patriotic” influencer read.

But others pointed to the soaring cost of living and the difficulties of raising children in modern China.

“I love my mother, I will not be a mother,” said one.

“No one reflects on why we do not want to have (children) and do not want to get married,” another said.

There are other anecdotal signs of the long-term downward trend of fertility in China.

Online searches for baby strollers on China’s Baidu search engine dropped 17 percent in 2022 and are down 41 percent since 2018, while searches for baby bottles are down more than a third since 2018. In contrast, searches for elderly care homes surged eight-fold last year.

The reverse is playing out in India, where Google Trends shows a 15 percent year-on-year increase in searches for baby bottles in 2022, while searches for cribs rose almost five-fold.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies