China braces for historic demographic turn, accelerated by COVID trauma

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By Farah Master

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Living under China’s strict COVID-19 restrictions for the past three years has caused Zhang Qi enough stress and uncertainty to consider not having children in the country.

When China abruptly dismantled its “COVID-zero” regime last month to allow the virus to spread freely, the balance tipped towards an outright “No”, the Shanghai e-commerce executive said.

Stories about mothers and babies being unable to see doctors because medical facilities were overwhelmed by COVID infections were the last straw for Zhang.

“I’ve heard giving birth in a public hospital is just awful. I really wouldn’t consider having a baby,” said the 31-year-old.

A glimpse of the scars inflicted by the pandemic on China’s already bleak demographic outlook may surface when it reports its official 2022 population data on Jan.

Some demographers expect China’s population in 2022 to show its first decline since the Great Famine in 1961, a profound shift with far-reaching implications for the global economy and world order.

New births for 2022 are set to drop to record lows, falling below 10 million from last year’s 10.6 million babies – which were already 11.5% fewer than in 2020.

“With this historic turn, China has entered a long and irreversible process of population decline, for the first time in China and in world history,” said Wang Feng, professor of sociology at the University of California.

“In less than 80 years, China’s population size could be reduced by 45%. It will be a China unrecognizable to the world.”

China’s total population increased by 480,000 to 1.4126 billion in 2021. The United Nations predicts that China’s population will begin to decline this year as India overtakes it as the world’s most populous country.

UN experts see China’s population shrinking by 109 million by 2050, more than triple the decline from their previous forecast in 2019.

While nine of the world’s 10 most populous nations are experiencing declines in fertility, China’s 2022 fertility rate of 1.18 was the lowest and well below the OECD standard of 2.1 for a stable population.

The country, which imposed a one-child policy from 1980 to 2015, officially acknowledged it was on the verge of a demographic crisis last year, when the National Health Commission said the population could start to decline before 2025.

In October, President Xi Jinping said the government would adopt new policies to boost the country’s birth rate.

TURNING GRAY

Since 2021, authorities have introduced measures including tax deductions, longer maternity leave, improved medical insurance and housing subsidies to encourage people to have more children.

Its impact so far has been weak.

Online searches for baby strollers on China’s Baidu dropped 17% in 2022 and are down 41% since 2018, while searches for baby bottles have dropped by more than a third since 2018. In contrast, searches for nursing homes have increased eight times a year past.

The reverse is happening in India, where Google Trends shows a 15% year-over-year increase in searches for baby bottles in 2022, while searches for cribs are up nearly fivefold.

The financial burden of early childhood education, some of the most stressful university entrance exams in the world and a nursery enrollment rate of only around 5.5% for children under 3 – far below the OECD average – are key factors affecting the fertility rate, the YuWa Population Research Think Tank said this month.

The economic impact of an aging society will be significant.

Demographer Yi Fuxian expects the proportion of people aged 65 and over to reach 37% in 2050, up from 14% last year and 5% in 1980. Their labor force will not be replenished at the same rate due to declining births.

“Rapid aging is slowing China’s economy, reducing revenues and increasing government debt… China is aging before it gets rich.”

Murphy, a 22-year-old student at the China University of Communication in Beijing, said she would not be able to support a child due to the sluggish economy.

Lockdowns cooled the economy to one of the lowest growth rates in nearly half a century last year.

“The pandemic has reinforced my outlook,” said Murphy, who declined to give his last name for privacy reasons. “Even if I could pay my own way, why would I want to have kids?”

(Additional reporting by Liz Lee, Joe Cash and the Beijing newsroom; Sophie Yu in Shanghai and Angel Woo in Hong Kong; Editing by Marius Zaharia and Lincoln Feast.)

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