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Why China's Population Dropped for the First Time in Decades: NPR

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A man pulls a child past a Lunar New Year decoration on display in Qianmen shopping street, a popular tourist spot in Beijing, on Tuesday.

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Andy Wong/AP

A man pulls a child past a Lunar New Year decoration on display in Qianmen shopping street, a popular tourist spot in Beijing, on Tuesday.

Andy Wong/AP

China has seen its first population decline in decades, in what some experts call a “sea change” for a country intent on growing its economy and raising its birth rate.

According to data published Tuesday by China’s National Bureau of Statistics, the population of mainland China was 1.411 billion people at the end of 2022, down 850,000 from the previous year.

Stuart Gietel-Basten, professor of social sciences at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and Khalifa University in Dubai, told NPR Morning Edition that the shrinkage could complicate China’s plans for continued economic expansion.

“The era of rapid growth, double-digit growth, cheap labor, a younger workforce – that era is now truly over,” said Gietel-Basten.

Long the world’s most populous country, China could soon see its population overtaken by India’s rapid growth. In 2022, according to UN data, India had a population of 1.4066 billion, second only to China’s 1.4485 billion.

It is believed that the last time China saw its population drop was during a tumultuous period known as the Great Leap Forward, which began in the late 1950s.

China’s infamous one-child policy has limited births for decades

China’s fertility rates were already declining in the 1970s, and in 1980 the Chinese government formally instituted the controversial one-child policy, legally restricting families from having more than one baby. The policy was intended to further limit China’s population growth and help spur an economic boom.

Ultimately, it resulted in low fertility rates and a massively aging population. Last year, China recorded more deaths than births, according to government data released this week. Officials said 10.41 million people died, while 9.56 million were born.

In 2015, China ended its one-child policy and began allowing married couples to have two children. He expanded the allowance again in 2021, allowing up to three children.

Yun Zhou, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Michigan, told NPR that China’s recent attempts to reverse course and encourage families to have more children have not worked.

“In my own research, what I’ve seen is that women often resist and often prioritize their paid jobs and prioritize the pursuit of individualistic ideals over this continual encouragement,” Zhou said.

“But as China is an authoritarian country, it remains to be seen how far and how extreme the state will actually go in trying to encourage births.”

Zhou also noted that while the Chinese government encourages heterosexual couples to have more children, LGBTQ and single people are often omitted from official policies.

The COVID pandemic has also put pressure on China’s fertility rate

After COVID-19 was first reported in Wuhan, China, the resulting lockdowns around the world caused far-reaching economic pain and social isolation.

This has been especially true in China, the world’s second-largest economy, where, in some cases, people have been confined to their homes for days or even weeks as strict pandemic lockdowns have been instituted to slow the spread of the virus.

Gietel-Basten said China had to grapple with economic insecurity caused by the pandemic, as well as “the challenges of working from home and having a family in these challenging circumstances, which has been particularly difficult in China”.

But he added that China’s shrinking population does not necessarily mean the country will see its economic growth shrink.

The government is already investing in services for its elderly population, noted Gietel-Basten, and will try to increase productivity among the many workers it still has.

“There are still many levers that can be pulled in China,” he said.

Zhou said that if China’s population continues to decline and its economy slows, it could lead the country and its leaders to view China’s place in the world differently. The government could project an “even more nationalistic imagery” or, on the other hand, place renewed emphasis on social stability, she suggested.

“This is really an open question and it really remains to be seen how the Chinese Communist Party will react,” she said. “Although it has taken a long time, we are on the verge of a radical change.”