BEIJING/HONG KONG, Jan 17 (Reuters) – China’s population shrank last year for the first time in six decades, a historic reversal that is expected to mark the start of a long period of population decline with deep implications for the economy and the world.
The country’s National Bureau of Statistics reported a decline of approximately 850,000 people for a population of 1.41175 billion in 2022, marking the first decline since 1961, the last year of China’s Great Famine.
This probably makes India the most populous nation in the world. UN experts predicted last year that India would have a population of 1.412 billion in 2022, but did not expect the South Asian country to overtake China until this year.
However, India collects population data only every 10 years and its last census, originally planned for 2021, was postponed due to the pandemic.
In the long term, UN experts project China’s population to shrink by 109 million by 2050, more than triple the decline in their previous forecast in 2019.
That has led local demographers to complain that China will grow old before it gets rich, slowing the economy as revenues fall and government debt rises due to soaring health and welfare costs.
“China’s demographic and economic prospects are much bleaker than expected. China will have to adjust its social, economic, defense and foreign policies,” said demographer Yi Fuxian.
He added that the country’s shrinking labor force and decline in output will further exacerbate high prices and high inflation in the United States and Europe.
“Economic growth will have to depend more on productivity growth,” added Zhiwei Zhang, chief economist at Pinpoint Asset Management.
Kang Yi, head of the National Bureau of Statistics, dismissed fears of a shrinking population, telling reporters that “total labor supply still exceeds demand.”
China’s birth rate last year was just 6.77 births per 1,000 people, down from a level of 7.52 births in 2021 and marking the lowest birth rate on record.
The number of Chinese women of childbearing age, which the government defines as ages 25 to 35, has fallen by about 4 million, Kang said.
The death rate, the highest since 1974 during the Cultural Revolution, was 7.37 deaths per 1,000 people, which compares to a rate of 7.18 deaths in 2021.
IMPACT OF THE ONE CHILD POLICY
Much of the demographic decline is the result of China’s one-child policy imposed between 1980 and 2015, as well as the extremely high cost of education, which prevented many Chinese from having more than one child, or even having any at all.
The one-child policy and the traditional preference for boys have also created a deep gender imbalance. The latest figures show that China has about 722 million men compared to 690 million women. The imbalance, which is more pronounced in rural areas, has led to fewer families being created in recent years.
The data was the top trending topic on Chinese social media after the data was released on Tuesday. One hashtag, “#Is it really important to have offspring?” it had hundreds of millions of hits.
“The main reason why women do not want to have children lies not in themselves, but in the inability of society and men to take responsibility for 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.
Chinese netizens have also complained before pressure on newlyweds to have offspring as soon as possible, reporting regular calls from the local authority asking when they can expect pregnancy.
China’s strict zero-tolerance policies against COVID, which have been in place for three years, have caused additional damage about the country’s demographic prospects, population experts said.
Local governments are introduced from 2021 measures to encourage people to have more babies, including tax breaks, longer maternity leave and housing subsidies. President Xi Jinping also said in October that the government would introduce additional supportive policies.
However, the measures so far have not been able to stop the long-term trend.
Online searches for baby strollers on China’s Baidu search engine fell 17% in 2022 and are down 41% since 2018, while searches for baby bottles have fallen by more than a third since 2018. In contrast , searches for nursing homes have increased eightfold in the past year.
The opposite is happening in India, where Google Trends shows a 15% annual increase in searches for baby bottles in 2022, while searches for cribs have increased almost fivefold.
Reporting by Albee Zhang in Beijing and Farah Master in Hong Kong; Additional reporting by Kevin Yao and Ella Kao in Beijing and Tanvi Mehta in New Delhi; Editing by Edwina Gibbs
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