Is China’s population shrinking?

Editor’s note (April 29th 2021): This article has been updated to include denials that China’s population is shrinking

THE COMMUNIST PARTY has long known that, partly as the result of its brutal birth-control policies, China’s population would soon peak and start to shrink. It has been startled, however, by how rapidly that moment has drawn near. Now, it looks as if it might have arrived.

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In November the country completed its ten-yearly census, and said it would announce the results in early April. As May arrives with no announcement, leaks suggest that the results have not been published because they are so shocking, and the party is in a flap about how to break the news. The Financial Times reported on April 27th that the census will show that the population has fallen below 1.4bn, still higher than the 1.34bn in the 2010 census, but lower than it was a year before.

Leaks are sometimes wrong, or reflect early estimates which are revised upwards. Global Times, a party newspaper, denied the report in the Financial Times, saying census results are “extremely unlikely” to indicate shrinkage starting last year. Oddly, it said a result showing a lower population in 2020 than in 2019 is likely to be “a statistical error”. The paper also acknowledged that a decline is likely to occur by next year. On April 29th, in a one-line statement, the National Bureau of Statistics said the population continued to grow in 2020. Either way, China’s demography is raising difficult questions for the party.

In 2015 the government relaxed the one-child policy, allowing most people to have a second child. The birth rate briefly rose, but soon fell again. In 2019 the number of new sprogs was the lowest since 1961, when a Mao-made famine killed millions and the population was half its present size.

A trickle of recent provincial data on birth numbers points in the same direction. Local figures on new birth registrations (separate from the census) offer a preview of what the census figures will probably show. For the first three quarters of 2020 the south-western city of Guiyang reported a 32% fall in births compared with the previous year. In the eastern city of Weifang births were down by 26% in the first half of the year. Hefty declines were reported elsewhere, unrelated to the coronavirus pandemic.

There are also indications that China’s total fertility rate (the number of children a woman is expected to have in her lifetime) has dropped faster and further than previously thought. Chinese planners have assumed a rate of 1.8, but some Chinese scholars (and the World Bank) say it is between 1.6 and 1.7. A working paper released in March by China’s central bank suggests the rate is no more than 1.5.

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Such numbers make grim reading for the party. China’s working-age population, defined as those between 15 and 59 years old, has been falling since 2011. Meanwhile the share of people aged over 60 has risen from 10.4% in 2000 to 17.9% in 2018. The latest guess is that by 2050 one-third of Chinese will be in their 60s or older. Supporting them will put a huge burden on the young, unless the oldies can be persuaded to work longer. In a report published in 2019 the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences warned that China’s main pension fund could run out of money by 2035.

A second demographic worry is the continued imbalance between men and women. Since the 1980s birth restrictions, combined with a preference for boys and easy access to prenatal scans, led to the widespread abortion of girls. In 2019 there were 30m more Chinese men than women and the disparity in the number of marriageable age will only grow. The government worries that young men who cannot find a mate may become a source of unrest.

Low birth rates will put more pressure on the party to abandon all its coercive birth-control policies. Fines still apply for having more than two babies, though enforcement varies. Lately the loudest calls for this have come from officials in the three provinces that comprise China’s north-eastern rustbelt. Birth rates in Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning are only about half the national average.

In February China’s National Health Commission said those three provinces could start allowing people to decide for themselves how many children to have. That is a right people in other countries take for granted. But it is unlikely to boost the region’s overall birth rate, or its flagging economy. A sociologist notes that local youngsters are fleeing to parts of China with better weather and more jobs.

“Most people want no baby or at most one baby, so even if you remove all the limits right now, it won’t have much effect,” says Zhang Xiaochen of Duke Kunshan University. Chinese have grown accustomed to the idea of a small family. High costs for housing, health and education further discourage fecundity.

Child-rearing out of wedlock is both socially unacceptable and officially discouraged, even as young Chinese are delaying getting married or shunning it entirely. Last year the number of nuptials fell by 12% to a little over 8m, the lowest since 2003 and well down on the peak of 13.5m in 2013. In 2005 almost half of those who got hitched did so between the age of 20 and 24; in 2019 only about one-fifth did so.

Officials are keen on policies such as cash payments to encourage parents to have a second child. But evidence from the 50 countries trying to boost birth rates suggests that this is hard. Providing cheap child care is perhaps the most effective policy. But that is much more costly and complex to deliver than handouts.

James Liang, an economist at Peking University, believes that China’s distorted demographics will limit the size of its market and talent pool and thus hinder its rise. China will never accept significant numbers of immigrants, he says, so America will have a big advantage. In the next ten or 20 years, China will continue to do well, but then America “will retake leadership and China will never catch up”.

The falling birth rate will bring forward another battle. A new five-year plan includes vague proposals to increase China’s retirement ages, which in cities is currently 60 for men and 55 or 50 for women, well below the rich-country average of 64. That will be deeply unpopular. And lengthening working lives also risks driving fertility down further, because many families rely on grandparents for child care. There are no easy ways out.

A version of this article was published online on April 28th, 2021

This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline “Is China’s population shrinking?”

The Economist

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