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China’s population falls for first time since 1961


China’s population has fallen for the first time in 60 years, with the national birth rate hitting a record low – 6.77 births per 1,000 women.

The population in 2022 – 1.4118 billion – fell by 850,000 from 2021.

China’s birth rate has been declining for years, prompting a slew of policies to slow the trend.

But seven years after scrapping the one-child policy, it has entered what one official described as an “era of negative population growth”.

The birth rate in 2022 was also down from 7.52 in 2021, according to China’s National Bureau of Statistics, which released the figures on Tuesday.

Deaths also outnumbered births for the first time last year. China logged its highest death rate since 1976 – 7.37 deaths per 1,000 people, up from 7.18 the previous year.

Earlier government data had heralded a demographic crisis, which would in the long run shrink China’s labour force and increase the burden on healthcare and other social security costs.

Results from a once-a-decade census announced in 2021 showed China’s population growing at its slowest pace in decades.

Some experts expect China’s population to continue shrinking through 2023.

Yue Su, principal economist at the Economist Intelligence Unit, said the long-term effects of the pandemic and recent lockdowns could lead to even lower birth rates.

“This trend is going to continue and perhaps worsen after Covid because the high youth unemployment rate and weaknesses in income expectations could delay marriage and childbirth plans further, dragging down the number of newborn babies,” she said. Meanwhile, the death rate will likely be higher than pre-pandemic level in 2023 due to Covid infections across the country, she said. China has seen a surge of infections since it abandoned its zero-Covid policy last month.

Other East Asian countries – such as Japan and South Korea – have seen shrinking populations.

China’s population trends over the years have been largely shaped by the controversial one-child policy, which was introduced in 1979 to slow population growth.

Families that violated the rules were fined and in some cases, even lost jobs. In a culture that historically favours boys over girls, the policy had also led to forced abortions and a reportedly skewed gender ratio from the 1980s.

The policy was scrapped in 2016 and married couples were allowed to have two children. In recent years, the Chinese government also offered tax breaks and better maternal healthcare, among other incentives, to reverse, or at least slow, the falling birth rate.

But these policies did not lead to a sustained increase in the births. Some experts say this is because policies that encouraged childbirth were not accompanied by efforts to ease the burden of childcare, such as more help for working mothers or access to education.

In October 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping made boosting birth rates a priority. Mr Xi said in a once-in-five-year Communist Party Congress in Beijing that his government will “pursue a proactive national strategy” in response to the country’s ageing population.

Bussarawan Teerawichitchainan, director of the National University of Singapore’s Centre for Family and Population Research, said that apart from dishing out incentives to have children, China should also look at improving gender equality in households and workplaces. The experiences of Scandinavian countries have shown that such moves can improve fertility rates, she said.

But some observers think China’s population contraction is not immediately detrimental.

Paul Cheung, Singapore’s former chief statistician and now a professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, said China has “plenty of manpower” and “a lot of lead time” to manage the demographic challenge.

“It is a signal that government of China needs to address the issue. They need to raise productivity, put in a lot more modern infrastructure and deal with healthcare. But are not in a doomsday scenario right away,” he said.


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