China may be one step closer to losing its place as the world’s most populous country to India after its population shrank for the first time since the 1960s.
The country’s population will fall to 1.411 billion by 2022, some 850,000 fewer people than the previous year, China’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) announced during a Tuesday briefing on annual data.
The last time China’s population declined was in 1961, during a famine that killed tens of millions across the country.
This time, a combination of factors are behind the decline: the far-reaching consequences of the one-child policy that China introduced in the 1980s (but has since abandoned); changing attitudes to marriage and family among Chinese youth; deep-rooted gender inequality and the challenges of raising children in China’s expensive cities.
Experts warn that the trend, if it continues, could also pose a problem for the rest of the world, with China playing a key role in driving global growth as the second largest economy.
A declining population is likely to exacerbate China’s problems with an aging workforce and curb growth, compounding misery as it struggles to recover from the pandemic.
The population decline is partly a result of China’s one-child policy, which has restricted couples to having just one child for more than 35 years. Women who went against the policy often suffered forced abortions, heavy fines and deportation.
Alarmed by the declining birth rate in recent years, the government scrapped the rule. In 2015 couples were allowed to have two children and in 2021 this was increased to three. But the policy change and other government efforts, such as offering financial incentives, have had little effect for several reasons.
High costs of living and education and skyrocketing real estate prices are important factors. Many people – especially in cities – face stagnant wages, fewer job opportunities and grueling work hours that make it both difficult and expensive to raise one child, let alone three.
These problems are exacerbated by entrenched gender roles that often place most of the burden of housework and childcare on women – who, better educated and more financially independent than ever, are increasingly unwilling to shoulder this unequal burden. Women have also reported experiencing discrimination at work based on their marital or parental status, with employers often reluctant to pay for maternity leave.
Some cities and counties have begun implementing measures such as paternity leave and expanded childcare. But many activists and women say it’s far from enough.
And frustrations only increased during the pandemic, with a disenchanted younger generation whose livelihoods and well-being have been derailed by China’s uncompromising zero-Covid policy.
Hear how parents in China react to the new three-child policy
A declining population is likely to add to the demographic problems China already faces. The country’s population is already aging and the labor force is shrinking, putting enormous pressure on the younger generation.
China’s elderly now make up nearly a fifth of the population, officials said Tuesday. Some experts warn that the country could take a similar path to Japan, which entered three decades of economic stagnation in the early 1990s that coincided with an aging population.
“The Chinese economy is entering a critical transition phase, no longer able to rely on an abundant, cost-competitive workforce to drive industrialization and growth,” said HSBC chief economist Frederic Neumann.
“As the supply of workers begins to shrink, productivity growth will need to pick up to support the economy’s heady pace of expansion.”
The Chinese economy is already in trouble, growing at just 3% in 2022 – one of its worst performances in nearly half a century, thanks to months of Covid lockdowns and a historic downturn in the real estate market.
The shrinking workforce could make recovery even more difficult as China resumes outbound travel and lifts many of the tight restrictions it has maintained in recent years.
There are also social implications. China’s social security system is likely to come under strain as there will be fewer workers to fund things like pensions and health care – as demand for these services rises due to the aging population.
There will also be fewer people to care for the elderly, and many young people will already be working to support their parents and two grandparents.
Senior citizens in China are at risk of being left behind
Given its role in driving the global economy, China’s challenges could have repercussions for the rest of the world.
The pandemic has illustrated how China’s domestic problems can affect the flow of trade and investment, with its lockdowns and border controls disrupting supply chains.
Not only would a slowing Chinese economy hamper global growth, it could jeopardize China’s ambitions to overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy.
China’s limited ability to respond to this demographic shift is likely to lead to slower growth outcomes over the next 20 to 30 years and will affect its ability to compete on the global stage with the United States. and International Studies. said in an article on her website last August.
It also looks like China will lose its place as the world’s most populous nation this year to India, whose population and economy are both booming.
“India is the biggest winner,” tweeted Yi Fuxian, who studies Chinese demography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
While Yi said India’s economy could one day surpass the US, it still has a long way to go. India is the world’s fifth-largest economy, having overtaken the UK last year, and some experts have expressed concern about the country not creating enough jobs to keep up with its growing workforce.
Still, some researchers say there may be a silver lining to the news from China.
“For both climate change and the environment, a smaller population is an advantage, not a curse,” tweeted Mary Gallagher, director of the International Institute at the University of Michigan.
Peter Kalmus, a climate scientist at NASA, argued that population decline should not be seen “as something terrible”, pointing instead to “exponentially accelerating global warming and loss of biodiversity”.
Chinese officials have stepped up efforts to encourage larger families, including through a multi-agency plan released last year to strengthen maternity leave and offer tax deductions and other benefits to families.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping promised in October to “improve population development strategy” and ease economic pressure on families.
“[We will] establish a policy system to increase birth rates and reduce costs of pregnancy and childbirth, parenting and schooling,” Xi said. “We will pursue a proactive national strategy in response to the aging population, develop programs and services for aged care, and provide better services to older people living alone.”
Some places even offer financial incentives to encourage more births. A village in southern Guangdong province announced in 2021 that it would pay permanent residents with babies under the age of 2.5 up to $510 a month — which could total more than $15,000 per child. Other places have offered real estate grants to couples with multiple children.
But those efforts have yet to bear fruit, with many experts and residents saying much more sweeping national reform is needed. After Tuesday’s news was announced, a hashtag went viral on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform: “To boost childbirth, first solve young people’s concerns.”
“Our salaries are so low, while the rent is so high and the financial pressure is so heavy. My husband-to-be will be working overtime until 3 a.m. every day until the end of the year,” wrote one Weibo user. “My survival and health are already issues let alone having kids.”