According to official statistics released on Tuesday, China population fell for the first time in decades last year as its birthrate plummeted, adding to the strain on the country’s authorities to maintain economic growth despite an aging labor force and mounting tensions with the United States.
Despite official figures, some experts believe China’s population has been declining for several years — a dramatic shift in a country that once attempted to control population growth through a one-child policy.
China Population Highlights Demographic Crisis
If shrinking opportunities fuel public discontent, a slowing economy could pose a political problem for the ruling Communist Party. Anger over strict COVID-19 lockdowns, which hampered the economy, erupted into protests late last year, with some calling for leader Xi Jinping to resign — a rare direct challenge to the party.
According to the National Bureau of Statistics, the country had 850,000 fewer people at the end of 2022 than the previous year. The figure only includes the population of mainland China, excluding Hong Kong, Macao, and foreign residents.
According to official figures, over 1 million fewer babies were born than the previous year, owing to a slowing economy and widespread pandemic lockdowns. In 2022, the bureau reported 9.56 million births and 10.41 million deaths.
It was unclear whether the population figures had been influenced by a widespread COVID-19 outbreak since pandemic restrictions were relaxed last month. Since early December, China has reported 60,000 COVID-related deaths, but some experts believe the government is likely underreporting deaths.
According to Yi, the demographer, China’s population has begun to decline nine to ten years earlier than Chinese officials and the United Nations predicted. With 1.4 billion people, the country has long been the world’s most populous, but it is expected to be surpassed by India soon, if not already.
Since the end of the one-child policy in 2016, China has sought to increase its population. Since then, China has tried, with limited success, to encourage families to have second or even third children, mirroring attitudes in much of East Asia, where birth rates have fallen precipitously. The cost of raising children in cities is frequently cited as a cause in China.
According to the statistics bureau, the working-age population aged 16 to 59 years old accounted for 875.56 million, or 62% of the national population, while those aged 65 and older accounted for 209.78 million, or 14.9% of the total.
Aside from demographic challenges, China is increasingly competing economically with the United States, which has restricted access to American technology for some Chinese companies, citing national security and fair competition concerns.
Much of the demographic downturn is the result of China’s one-child policy, which was implemented between 1980 and 2015, as well as sky-high education costs, which have discouraged many Chinese from having more than one child if any at all.
Since 2021, local governments have implemented policies to encourage people to have more children, such as tax breaks, extended maternity leave, and housing subsidies. President Xi Jinping also stated in October that the government would implement additional supportive policies.
However, so far, measures have done little to halt the long-term trend. Online searches for baby strollers on China’s Baidu search engine fell by 17% in 2022 and have fallen by 41% since 2018, while searches for baby bottles have dropped by more than a third since 2018. Searches for elderly care homes, on the other hand, increased eightfold last year.