BEIJING – China’s population growth is approaching zero, government data showed on Tuesday, adding to tensions over an aging society with a shrinking workforce as fewer couples have children.
The population has grown by 72 million over the past 10 years to reach 1.411 billion in 2020, the National Bureau of Statistics said after a decade-long census. He said the average annual growth was 0.53%, down 0.04% from the previous decade.
Chinese leaders have imposed birth rates since 1980 to curb population growth, but fear the number of working-age people is shrinking too quickly, disrupting efforts to build a prosperous economy. They have relaxed birth limits, but couples are discouraged by high costs, cramped housing and job discrimination from mothers.
Reflecting the sensitivity of the matter, the statistical agency took the unusual step last month by announcing that the population had increased in 2020 but did not give a total. It sounded like an effort to calm businesses and investors after the Financial Times reported the census could have seen a surprise drop.
China, along with Thailand and some other rapidly aging developing countries in Asia, faces what economists call the challenge of whether it can get rich before it gets older.
China’s working-age population of 15 to 59 is shrinking after peaking at 925 million in 2011. This is pushing up wages as companies compete for workers. But it could hamper efforts to develop new industries and self-sustaining economic growth based on consumer spending rather than trade and investment.
The announcement did not give any details about births last year, but earlier data showed the annual number has been declining since 2016.
“We are more concerned about the rapid decline in the working-age population,” said Lu Jiehua, professor of population studies at Peking University.
The working-age population was three-quarters of the total in 2011, but it will drop to just over half by 2050, according to Lu. The Ministry of Labor and Social Security said in 2016 that this group could decrease to 700 million by then.
“If the population ages too much, it will be impossible to solve the problem through immigration,” Lu said. “It needs to be addressed at an early stage.”
Young couples who wish to have a child face daunting challenges. Many share crowded apartments with their parents. Childcare is expensive and maternity leave is short. Most single mothers are excluded from medical insurance and social benefits. Some women worry that childbirth will hurt their careers.
“First, during the interview, if you are married and have no children, they may ask, are you planning to have a child?” said He Yiwei, who is about to return from the United States after graduating with a master’s degree.
“And then, when you have a child, you take maternity leave, but will you still keep that job after you take the leave?” he said. “Compared to men, when it comes to work, women have to sacrifice more.”
Japan, Germany and some other rich countries face the same challenge of supporting aging populations with fewer workers. But they can draw on decades of investment in factories, technology and foreign assets.
China is a middle-income country with labor-intensive agriculture and manufacturing. The International Monetary Fund forecasts Chinese economic growth of 8.4% this year after a rebound from the coronavirus pandemic.
The ruling Communist Party wants to double production per person from 2020 levels by 2035, which would require annual growth of around 4.7%.
The ruling party is making changes, but it’s unclear whether some are big enough to ease the strain on an underfunded pension system.
The party took its most dramatic step when restrictions in place since 1980 that limited many Chinese couples to having only one child were relaxed in 2015 to allow two.
However, China’s birth rate, along with trends in South Korea, Thailand and other Asian economies, was already dropping before the one-child rule. The average number of children per mother fell from more than six in the 1960s to less than three in 1980, according to the World Bank.
Demographers say official birth limits concealed what would have been a further drop in the number of children per family.
One-child limits, imposed by threats of fines, job losses and other pressures, have led to abuses, including forced abortions. A preference for sons has led parents to kill or abandon baby girls, leading to warnings that millions of men may not be able to find wives, fueling social tensions.
The ruling party says it has prevented 400 million potential births, averting food and water shortages. But demographers say if China followed Asian trends, the number of extra unchecked babies could have been as low as a few million.
After the limits were relaxed in 2015, many couples with one child had a second, but the total number of births fell in 2017-18 because fewer had any at all.
Some researchers say the Chinese population is already shrinking, which they believe should lead to drastic political changes.
Yi Fuxian, senior researcher in obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says the population began to decline in 2018. Her book “Big Country With An Empty Nest” argues against the limitations of the one-child.
“China’s economic, social, educational, technological, defense and foreign policies are based on wrong numbers,” Yi said.
Chinese regulators are talking about raising the official retirement age from 55 to increase the pool of workers.
Professional women appreciate the opportunity to pursue fulfilling careers. But others don’t like being forced to work more years. And keeping workers at work, unable to care for children, could discourage their daughters from having more.
An earlier government estimate said China’s population topped 1.4 billion people for the first time in 2019, increasing by 4.7 million from the previous year.
The latest data places China on the brink of being overtaken by India as the most populous country, which is expected to happen by 2025.
Last year, India’s population was estimated by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs at 1.38 billion, 1.5 percent behind China. The agency says India is expected to grow at 0.9% per year through 2025.
Already, populations are probably declining in “a few pockets around China,” said Sabu Padmadas, a demographer at the UK University of Southampton who has consulted on China for the United Nations Population Fund.
Tuesday’s announcement said 25 of China’s 31 provinces and regions have shown population growth over the past decade. He gave no indication that numbers in other regions have declined or remained stable.
In Wenzhou, a coastal business center south of Shanghai, the number of new births reported last year fell 19% from 2019.
“Eventually what will happen is it will spread,” Padmadas said.