China's population drops, heralding a demographic crisis

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HONG KONG – The world’s most populous country has reached a crucial moment: China’s population has begun to shrink, after a steady years-long decline in its birth rate that experts say will be irreversible.

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

Chinese authorities have tried for years to delay that moment, loosening the one-child policy and offering incentives to encourage families to have children. None of these policies worked. Now, facing a population decline along with a prolonged increase in life expectancy, the country is plunged into a demographic crisis that will have consequences not just for China and its economy, but for the world.

Over the past four decades, China has emerged as an economic powerhouse and the world’s factory floor. The country’s transformation from widespread poverty to the world’s second-largest economy has led to an increase in life expectancy that has contributed to the current population decline – more people are aging and fewer babies are being born.

That trend has accelerated another worrying event: the day when China won’t have enough working-age people to fuel the high-speed growth that has made it a powerhouse of the global economy.

“Long term, we’re going to 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 appreciate China, in terms of population, as an aging and shrinking population.”

Births dropped by 10.6 million in 2021, the sixth straight year the number has dropped, according to the Bureau of National Statistics. By 2035, 400 million people in China are expected to be over the age of 60, representing nearly a third of its population. The labor shortages that will accompany China’s rapidly aging population will also reduce tax revenue and contributions to a pension system that is already under enormous strain.

Whether or not the government can provide broad access to elderly care, medical services and a steady stream of income later in life will affect a long-held assumption that the Communist Party can provide a better life for its people.

The news of China’s population decline comes at a challenging time for the Beijing government, which is grappling with the fallout from last month’s sudden reversal of its zero-tolerance policy on Covid.

Data on Tuesday showed a small increase in mortality over the past year, to 10.41 million deaths, compared with around 10 million in recent years, raising questions about how a recent Covid outbreak may have contributed to the numbers. .

Last week, officials unexpectedly revised their first-month Covid death tolls after reporting single-digit daily deaths for weeks. But experts questioned the accuracy of the new figure – 60,000 deaths between Dec. 8 and Jan. 12.

On Tuesday, Kang Yi, commissioner of the National Bureau of Statistics, said December Covid death figures have not yet been incorporated into the grand total of deaths in 2022.

China also released data on Tuesday that showed the depth of its economic challenges. The country’s gross domestic product, the broadest measure of its business vitality, grew just 2.9% in the last three months of the year, following widespread lockdowns and the recent rise in Covid infections. For the full year, China’s economy grew by just 3%, its slowest rate in nearly four decades.

This historic demographic moment was not unexpected. Chinese officials admitted last year that the country was on the cusp of a population decline likely to begin before 2025. But it came sooner than demographers, statisticians and China’s Communist Party had predicted.

China has followed a trajectory familiar to many developing countries as their economies get richer – fertility rates fall as incomes rise and education levels rise. As the quality of life improves, people live longer.

“It’s the kind of situation that economists dream about,” said Philip O’Keefe, director of the Asian Aging Research Center, ARC Center of Excellence in Research on Population Aging.

But the government has shortened its timeline to prepare for this moment, moving very slowly to loosen birth-restrictive policies. “They could have given themselves a little longer,” said Mr. O’Keefe.

Authorities have taken a number of steps in recent years to try to slow the decline in births. In 2016, they relaxed the one-child policy that had been in place 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 cuts and even property concessions.

China’s situation stands in stark contrast to that of India, whose total population is expected to exceed that of China later this year, according to a recent United Nations estimate. But India’s fertility rate is also rapidly declining.

Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, recently made the country’s demographic challenges a priority, promising “a national policy system to raise birth rates.” But in reality, experts say, China’s falling birth numbers reveal an irreversible trend.

“The aggregate population decline and the decline in the working-age population – both are irreversible,” said O’Keefe. “I don’t think there is a single country that has dropped as low as China in terms of fertility rate and then recovered to the replacement rate.”

Along with Japan and South Korea, China has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world, below what demographers call the fertility replacement rate necessary for a population to grow. That number would require that each couple, on average, have two children.

So far, government measures have failed to change the underlying fact that many young Chinese simply don’t want children. They often cite the rising cost of creating them, especially with the economy in a precarious state.

Rachel Zhang, a 33-year-old photographer from Beijing, decided before marrying her husband that they would not have children. Sometimes family elders pester them about having a baby.

“I’m firm on this,” Zhang said. “I never had the urge to have kids all the time.” The rising costs of raising a child and finding an apartment in a good school district strengthened his resolve.

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

China’s strict “covid zero” policy – nearly three years of mass testing, quarantines and lockdowns resulting in some families being separated for long periods of time – may have driven even more people to decide not to have children.

Luna Zhu, 28, and her husband have parents willing to take care of their grandchildren. And she works for a state company that offers a good maternity leave package. But Mrs. Zhu, who got married five years ago, is not interested.

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

read you contributed to research and Keith Bradsher contributed to the report.


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