HONG KONG – China said on Tuesday that its population shrank last year for the first time in six decades, a historic shift with profound implications for the world’s second-largest economy.
Officials from the National Bureau of Statistics said there were 1.41175 billion people in mainland China at the end of 2022, down from 850,000 a year ago to 1.41260 billion. 9.56 million births – a record low birth rate – 6.77 per thousand – and 10.41 million deaths.
The announcement was part of a wider release of economic data for 2022, when President Xi Jinping’s tough “zero-Covid” policy will have a big impact on growth. Officials said gross domestic product rose 3%, beating expectations, but still one of the weakest numbers in decades.
The economy is expected to improve in 2023 as China emerges from pandemic isolation, Kang Yi, director of the National Bureau of Statistics, told a press briefing in Beijing. He also said that China’s population decline is not a cause for concern and that the overall labor force is still outstripping demand.
China’s birthrate has been falling for nearly a decade, undermining the ruling Communist Party’s consumption-driven growth model and raising questions about whether China can overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy. The United Nations has said that India will overtake China as the world’s most populous country by the end of this year.
China’s 9.56 million births are down almost 10% from 2021, when about 10.6 million babies were born. In 2021, when 10.14 million deaths were recorded in China, the rate was 7.37 deaths per 1,000 people at 7.18.
As in other countries, declining births mean an aging workforce for China, which has built its economic power on a manufacturing sector that depends largely on cheap labor. Working-age people aged 16 to 59 make up 62% of the country’s population, down from about 70% a decade ago, while people aged 60 and over make up almost 20%, officials said Tuesday. constitutes
Kent Deng, professor of economic history at the London School of Economics and Political Science, says the main reason for China’s population decline is the rise of the middle class.
“Once you have well-qualified, well-educated urban people, they will decide not to have many children,” he said, especially given China’s rising cost of living.
Covid is also believed to be playing a role, although China has experienced the vast majority of cases and deaths in the past few months. After international criticism that it has not been transparent about the severity of its current outbreak, China said at the weekend it had recorded nearly 60,000 Covid-related deaths since early December, when it abruptly ended three years of anti-Covid measures following rare mass protests. . Experts say the actual death toll could be 1 million or more in the coming months.
Kang said China’s total number of deaths from all causes in December is not yet known and is not reflected in the 2022 population statistics.
The figures released on Tuesday are the start of an expected long decline in China’s population, which the UN said could reach 800 million by the end of the century. The US population, on the other hand, is projected to grow from its current 337 million, largely due to immigration.
According to the UN, the total number of the world’s population reached 8 billion in November
While many countries are experiencing population declines, China’s is shrinking for the first time since 1961, following a three-year famine spurred by then-leader Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward industrialization initiative estimated to have killed tens of millions of people. of people.
The country then experienced strong growth in the second half of the 20th century, with its population more than doubling. Concerned that overpopulation could harm development, Chinese officials imposed a series of reproductive restrictions based on the “one-child policy,” which was in effect from 1980 to 2015.
While the one-child policy has been effective in curbing population growth, critics say it has resulted in delinquency and a disproportionate number of men compared to women, especially in rural areas. Deng also radically changed Chinese ideas about family size as parents realized that they could achieve upward social mobility by investing more in the education of a single child.
“They can see the results because they can send their children to the best schools and then to the best universities,” he said.
Chinese officials have anticipated the demographic crisis, allowing couples to have two children from 2016 and up to three from 2021. A national policy document passed last year encouraged employers to provide childcare and flexible working arrangements, and local governments to offer affordable housing and other offers. incentives. Xi promised to take additional measures to increase the birth rate at the party congress in October.
But the public reacted largely with indifference. A study published last year by the YuWa Population Research Institute, a Beijing-based think tank, found that Chinese desire to have children is among the lowest in the world.
On Tuesday, the hashtag “Boosting the enthusiasm for having a baby starts with reducing the burden” was the most trending topic on Weibo, a popular Chinese social media platform.
The best way to reverse the trend, Deng said, is to provide family benefits of the kind offered by some governments in Europe.
“You need a lot of resources to convince young Chinese that having a second child is really profitable,” he said.
The relative lack of support makes motherhood particularly unappealing for young urban women like Beijing resident Nora Yang, who said she was “80%” against having children of her own.
“The working environment is really unfriendly for mothers,” Yang, 24, said. “Once they have a baby, it’s really hard to make more progress in their careers.”
Yang agreed with Deng that the government was not doing enough to change his mind.
If Chinese officials really want to encourage children, they should “give money to those who have more babies,” he said. “Otherwise they will fail.”