Sheffield. China’s population has declined for the first time in 60 years and is set to halve by the end of the century. After years of decline, China will now enter what one government official has called an “era of negative population growth”, with the national birth rate hitting a record low of 6.77 births per 1,000 people. China has long been the most populous country in the world. Apart from the famine years (1959–61) caused by the Great Leap Forward political campaign, China’s population grew rapidly in the last decades.
China’s rapid population growth began to slow in the 1970s when the Chinese government introduced family planning measures due to fears of “overpopulation”. The most far-reaching measure was the one-child policy adopted in 1980, which limited each household to only one child (with some exceptions). According to the government’s reasoning at the time, reducing population growth would make up for the lack of resources needed to raise living standards and promote economic growth. Accordingly, the rate of growth of China’s population remained slow for several decades.
Now, for the first time in decades, the population is beginning to decline. But whether China’s population has truly peaked, and when and how fast this reduction will occur, is unclear and a subject of some debate. The United Nations World Population Outlook to 2022 previously predicted that China’s population would begin to decline around 2030. Data on China’s population is notoriously unreliable and depends on who is doing the counting. According to China’s National Bureau of Statistics, the country will have 1.4117 billion people at the end of 2022, up from 1.4126 billion a year ago.
But the United Nations Population Fund has estimated the number of people in China at 1.4485 million and the World Population Review estimates 1.4260 million. Variations in population trend estimates are based on different assumptions and data sources, leading to different expectations of how China’s society will develop over time. The further back in time these estimates are made, the more difficult they become. Many factors influence how fertility rates evolve over a decade – let alone half a century.
So these predictions that China’s population will halve by 2100 need to be read with some caution. They depend on the assumption that how society develops over time. Government failure For decades the Chinese government has attempted to actively manage population growth by influencing the fertility rate. China’s fertility rate (1.3 in 2020) decreased sharply following the one-child policy, allowing families to have two, then three children at the end of the policy in 2016. The Chinese government has also begun to support families in other ways, for example by promoting longer maternity leave and tax incentives for having children. But these policy changes appear to be too little, too late.
Many experts – in China and elsewhere – have argued that the decade’s delay in abolishing the one-child policy has led to a sharp decrease in its population growth. There has also been a decline in the adoption of new family planning policies. After decades of promoting the family of three, this image has become deeply ingrained in Chinese society. Not only this, the cost of education, housing and marriage has also increased. Having more children is considered too expensive for many families. Still, for some forecasters, this population decline has come at a faster rate than expected. One reason could be the Covid pandemic which has discouraged families from having more children. But the effects of Covid are difficult to quantify. For example, China’s data on Covid-related deaths is unreliable.
What does this mean for the world?
When more people live longer – and fewer children are born – it has two consequences: a shrinking workforce and increased costs for people in old age. China’s rapid economic growth is a result of its large and cheap workforce. With fewer workers available and global moves away from China, companies are moving their production elsewhere. This threatens China’s economic development model at a time when it is transitioning from a labor-intensive to a knowledge-intensive economy. Another growing concern is how to care for the rapidly aging population. It is estimated that by 2079 there will be more Chinese outside the workforce than inside.
Even if the aging of the population slows down more than expected, its pension, health and social care costs will become a heavy drag on economic growth, unless productivity increases. China is not the only one facing such issues. Other East Asian countries, such as Japan and South Korea, are also experiencing rapidly aging populations. Similarly, many European countries, including Germany and Italy, have experienced population declines over the decades. But the situation in China is different.
First, it is facing population aging and decline while it is still a middle-income country, making it difficult to finance socio-economic transformation. Second, from an international perspective, China has taken a central position in global supply chains – so whatever affects China will have an effect on the world economy. So this story of China’s population decline affects China’s position in the world and the global economy at large.
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