Chinese population shrinks for first time in more than 60 years

Chinese population shrinks for first time in more than 60 years

Published on: 01/17/2023 – 04:21

China recorded a population decline in 2022 for the first time since the early 1960s. This decline, which could last until the end of the century, could severely affect the economy and the pension system.

This is a historic turning point: China, the world’s most populous country, home to one-sixth of the earth’s inhabitants, experienced a population decline in 2022 unheard of in six decades. 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.

India is set to overtake China as the country with the largest population this year, the UN had already announced.

The Chinese were once known for their large families. The population had doubled since the 1960s to over 1.4 billion today. But in 2022, the number of births in mainland China will have been just 9.56 million, the National Bureau of Statistics (BNS) announced on Tuesday, Jan. 17. At the same time, 10.41 million deaths were recorded. The combination of both phenomena led to a population decline (minus 850,000 people).

This is a first since 1960-1961, when a famine that began in 1959 left tens of millions dead after the failures of the “Great Leap Forward” economic policies.

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.

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“Small Families”

How to explain this autumn? The cost of living has risen sharply in China, as has the cost of raising a child. The higher level of education among women also delays pregnancy.

“Because of the decades-long one-child policy, having small families is also now a habit,” Xiujian Peng, a researcher specializing in Chinese demographics at the institute, told AFP from Victoria University (Australia).

The desire to have children is also less pronounced among the younger generations. Independent demographer He Yafu also tells AFP “the decline in the number of women of childbearing age, which fell by five million a year between 2016 and 2021.”

In 2019, the 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, well below the generational renewal threshold (2.1). In France it was 1.8 in 2020.

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

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


Many local authorities have taken action to encourage couples to procreate. The metropolis of Shenzhen (south) has been offering a birth bonus and allowances up to the child’s 3rd year for a few days. A couple welcoming their first baby will automatically receive 3,000 yuan ($450), or even 10,000 yuan ($1,500) if it’s their third. In total, a family with three children will receive 37,500 yuan in bonuses and allowances.

Shandong Province (East) offers 158 days of maternity leave from the first child (60 days more than the national standard). Metropolitan Changsha (center), which limits home purchases to curb speculation, allows couples with two or three children to buy an additional home.

Sufficient measures? “First of all, it should (the government) clearly affirm that there will be no more birth control in order to restore a real birth rate culture,” He Yafu affirmed.

“A comprehensive set of measures covering childbirth, parenthood and upbringing is necessary to reduce the cost of raising a child,” Xiujian Peng said.

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.

With AFP