China’s population is shrinking, heralding a demographic crisis

The world’s most populous country has reached a pivotal moment: China’s population has begun to decline after a steady, years-long decline in birth rates that experts say will be irreversible.

The government said on Tuesday that 9.56 million people were born in China in 2022, while 10.41 million people died. It was the first time deaths exceeded births in China since the early 1960s, when the Great Leap Forward, Mao Zedong’s failed economic experiment, led to widespread famine and death.

Births fell by 10.6 million in 2021, the sixth consecutive year of decline. That decline, coupled with a continued increase in life expectancy, is pushing China toward a demographic crisis that will have ramifications this century not just for China and its economy, but for the world, experts said.

“In the long run, we will see a China the world has never seen,” said Wang Feng, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine, who specializes in China’s demography.

“It will no longer be the young, vibrant, growing population. We will begin to rate China, in terms of its population, as an old and declining population.

The news comes at a challenging time for the government in Beijing, which is dealing with consequences of last month’s sudden reversal of the zero-tolerance policy to Covid.

Over the past four decades, China has become an economic powerhouse and a global factory. This transformation led to an increase in life expectancy, which contributed to its current situation – more people are aging while fewer babies are being born. By 2035, 400 million people in China are expected to be over 60, accounting for almost a third of its population.

This trend is accelerating another alarming event: the day when China will not have enough working-age people to fuel the high-speed growth that has made it the engine of the world economy. Labor shortages will also reduce tax revenues and contributions to a pension system that is already under enormous pressure.

The result, some experts say, could have implications for global order, with India’s population poised to surpass China’s later this year, according to a recent UN estimate.

This moment was not unexpected. Last year, Chinese officials acknowledged that the country is on the brink of a population decline that is likely to begin before 2025. But that has happened sooner than demographers, statisticians and China’s ruling Communist Party expected.

The authorities have taken steps to try to slow the decline in the birth rate. In 2016, they relaxed the one child policy which had been in effect for 35 years, allowing families to have two children. In 2021, they raised the limit to three. Since then, Beijing has offered a range of incentives to couples and small families to encourage them to have children, including cash grants, tax breaks and even property rebates.

Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, recently made the issue a priority, promising a “national political system to raise the birth rate.” But in reality, experts say, China’s sharp decline in birth rates reveals an irreversible trend.

Along with Japan and South Korea, China has one of the lowest birth rates in the world, below what demographers call the replacement rate of births needed for population growth. This figure would require each couple to have two children on average.

So far, the government’s measures have failed to change the basic fact that many young Chinese simply do not want children. They often cite the ever-increasing cost of growing them, especially with the economy in a precarious state.

Rachel Zhang, a 33-year-old photographer from Beijing, decided before she married her husband that they would not have children. Sometimes the elders in the family force them to have a baby.

“I’m adamant about it,” Ms Zhang said. “I’ve never wanted to have kids all the time.” The rising costs of raising a child and finding an apartment in a good school district have hardened her resolve.

Other factors have contributed to such reluctance to have more children, including the burden many younger adults face in caring for aging parents and grandparents.

China’s strict “zero Covid” policy — nearly three years of mass testing, quarantines and lockdowns that have separated some families for long periods of time — may have led even more people to decide not to have children.

Luna Zhu, 28, and her husband have parents who are willing to take care of their grandchildren. And she works for a state-owned enterprise that provides a good maternity leave package. But Ms. Zhu, who got married five years ago, doesn’t care.

“Especially in the past three years of the epidemic, I feel that many things are so difficult,” Ms. Zhu said.

Li Ti contributed research.

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