China, world’s most populous country, records population decline for first time in more than sixty years

China, world’s most populous country, records population decline for first time in more than sixty years

The fertility rate in China has plummeted to 1.15 children per woman in 2021.  Here in Beijing on October 7, 2022. The birth rate in China collapsed to 1.15 children per woman in 2021. Here in Beijing on October 7, 2022. MARK SCHIEFELBEIN / AP

It’s been unheard of for six decades: China, the world’s most populous country with 1.4 billion people, or one-sixth the planet’s population, saw its population decline in 2022.

In 2021, the number of births in mainland China was 9.56 million, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) announced on Tuesday, Jan. 17. At the same time, 10.41 million deaths were recorded. The combination of the two phenomena resulted in a population decline of 850,000 people.

According to demographers, this decline promises to be ongoing, perhaps until the end of the century, which will hit the economy and the pension system badly. The United Nations (UN) had already announced that India is set to overtake China as the country with the most inhabitants this year.

Also Read: A Historically Low Birth Rate in China

A paradoxical decline

This is a first since 1960-1961, when a famine that began in 1959 killed tens of millions after the failures of the Great Leap Forward economic policies. Then the population had grown rapidly, doubling since the 1960s and now over 1.4 billion.

Paradoxically, this decline occurs despite the relaxation of birth control policies in recent years. Ten years ago, the Chinese were only allowed to have one child. Since 2021 they are allowed to have three.

This decline can be explained by the increase in the cost of living in China, as well as that of a child’s education. Women’s higher level of education forces them to postpone childbirth.

“There’s also now a habit of having small families because of the one-child policy that’s been going on for decades,” said Xiujian Peng, a researcher specializing in Chinese demographics at the University of Victoria, Australia. The desire to have children is also less pronounced among the younger generations.

Independent demographer He Yafu also notes to AFP “the decline in the number of women of childbearing age, which fell by 5 million per year between 2016 and 2021.”

Also read China Allows Families to Have Three Children

A plummeting fertility rate

In 2019, the United Nations (UN) still believed that China would not reach its peak population until 2031-2032. But since then, the fertility rate has plummeted to 1.15 children per woman in 2021, far from the generational renewal threshold (2.1). In France it was 1.8 in 2020.

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“The decline and aging of the population (…) will have a profound impact on the Chinese economy from now to 2100,” Xiujian Peng warns. “The shrinking labor force means higher labor costs,” and this “will affect China’s competitiveness in the global market,” she stresses.

According to his team’s projections, without pension system reform, pension payments could account for 20% of GDP by 2100 – up from 4% in 2020. “The pressure on working people to care for the elderly will increase,” warns He Yafu.

Read Frédéric Lemaître’s column: Article reserved for our subscribers “In China, the government is preparing people for a postponement of the retirement age”

Many local authorities have taken action to encourage couples to procreate. Shenzhen Metro (South) offers a birth grant and allowances up to the child’s 3rd year. A couple welcoming their first baby will receive 3,000 yuan; 10,000 yuan (1,370 euros) for the third. In total, a family with three children will receive 37,500 yuan in bonuses and allowances.

Shandong province in the east of the country offers 158 days of maternity leave from the first child (60 days more than the national standard). The metropolitan Changsha (Central), which limits house purchases to curb speculation, allows couples with two or three children to buy an additional house.

“Restoring a real birth rate culture”

But nothing says that these measures will be enough to restart the birth rate. “Above all, we should [que le gouvernement] reiterates unequivocally that there is no more birth cap to restore a true birth rate culture,” affirmed He Yafu. “Reducing the cost of raising a child requires a comprehensive set of policies covering childbirth, parenthood and education,” Xiujian Peng said.

Also read the article reserved for our subscribers “Is Accelerating Population Aging Threatening China’s Future Place on the International Stage? »

China’s population could be shrinking by an average of 1.1% each year, according to a study by the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, whose data was shared with AFP. According to these demographers’ most pessimistic forecasts, China could have a population of just 587 million by 2100, less than half of today.

The world with AFP