HONG KONG — The world’s most populous country has reached a critical juncture: China’s population is shrinking after years of a steady decline in the birth rate that experts say is irreversible.
There were 9.56 million births and 10.41 million deaths in China last year, the government said on Tuesday. It was the first time that deaths in China exceeded births since the Great Leap Forward, Mao Zedong’s failed economic experiment that led to widespread famine and death in the 1960s.
For years, Chinese officials have tried to slow down that moment, easing the one-child policy and offering incentives for families to have children. None of these policies worked. Now, faced with a declining population, coupled with a long-term rise in life expectancy, China is entering a demographic crisis that will have ramifications not just for China and its economy, but for the world.
Over the past four decades, China has emerged as an economic powerhouse and the factory of the world. The country’s growth from pervasive poverty into the world’s second-largest economy has led to an increase in life expectancy that has led to the current population decline — more people living longer and fewer babies being born.
This trend has accelerated another worrying event: that China will one day not have enough working-age people to fuel its growth.
“In the long run, we will see a China that the world has never seen before,” said Wang Feng, a sociology professor at the University of California, Irvine who specializes in Chinese demographics. “It will no longer be a young, vibrant, growing population. We will start to appreciate China, as far as its population is concerned, it is an aging and shrinking population.”
Government grants such as baby cash and tax breaks have failed to change the basic fact that many young Chinese do not want children at all.
“I cannot take on the responsibility of bearing a life,” said Luna Zhu, 28, who lives in Beijing with her husband. Their parents are both willing to take care of their grandchildren, and she works for a state-owned enterprise that offers good maternity leave. Or Miss Zhu is not interested in being a mother.
Births fell from 10.6 million According to the Office for National Statistics, 2021 will be the sixth year in a row that the number has fallen.The total population of China is now 1.41 billion. By 2035, China’s population over the age of 60 is expected to reach 400 million, accounting for nearly one-third of the total population.
The labor shortage that comes with China’s rapidly aging population will also reduce tax revenue and contributions to an already stressed pension system.
The government’s ability to provide extensive pensions, medical services, and a steady source of income for old age will affect the Communist Party’s long-term assumption that it can provide a better life for its people.
News of China’s population decline comes at a delicate time for Beijing’s government, which is grappling with fallout from last month’s abrupt reversal of its zero-tolerance policy on the coronavirus.
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The Chinese government has dropped its restrictive “zero Covid” policy that sparked mass protests, a rare challenge to the Communist Party’s leadership.
Data on Tuesday showed the death rate rose slightly to 10.41 million last year, compared with about 10 million in recent years, raising questions about the impact the recent coronavirus surge might have had on that number .
Last week, officials unexpectedly reported the first month of Covid deaths after weeks of reporting daily deaths in the single digits. But experts question the accuracy of the new figures – 60,000 people died between December 12 and December. 8th and January. 12.
Kang Yi, director of the National Bureau of Statistics, said on Tuesday that the death toll from Covid in December had not yet been included in the 2022 total.
China also released data on Tuesday showing the depth of its economic challenges. The country’s gross domestic product, the broadest measure of its business vitality, grew by just 2.9% in the final three months of the year following widespread lockdowns and a recent surge in Covid infections. For the whole year, China’s economy grew by only 3%, the lowest growth rate in nearly 40 years.
This historic demographic moment is no surprise. Chinese officials acknowledged last year that the country was on the verge of a population decline that could begin before 2025. But it came sooner than demographers, statisticians and China’s ruling Communist Party expected.
As the economy grows wealthier, China has followed a trajectory familiar to many developing countries: Fertility rates fall as incomes rise and education levels rise. As the quality of life improves, people live longer.
“It’s an economist’s dream situation,” said Philip O’Keefe, director of the Asian Center on Aging at ARC’s Center of Excellence for Research on Population Aging.
But as the country grew wealthier, the government was too slow to loosen restrictive birth control policies, shortening the timetable for preparing for that moment. “They could have given themselves A little more time,” said Mr. O’Keeffe.
In recent years, officials have taken steps to try to slow the decline in the birth rate. In 2016, they relaxed their three-decade-old “one-child” policy, allowing families to have two children. In 2021, they raised the limit to three. Since then, Beijing has offered couples and small families a range of incentives to have children, including cash handouts, tax breaks and even property concessions.
Zheng Mu, an assistant professor of sociology at the National University of Singapore who studies China’s fertility rate, said the measures were not comprehensive enough to stabilize the declining birth rate or change entrenched traditional expectations about women’s roles in the family.
“When we talk about child care and education for children, most of the time we expect women to do the work,” she said. mu.
China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, recently made the country’s demographic challenges a priority, pledging to “establish a national policy system to raise the fertility rate.” But in reality, experts say, the sharp decline in China’s birth rate shows an irreversible trend.
Along with Japan and South Korea, China has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world, below what demographers say is the fertility replacement rate needed for population growth. This number requires an average of two children per couple.
Meanwhile, India’s total population is expected to surpass China’s later this year, according to recent United Nations estimates.
Mr. Chen said that it is difficult to reverse the trend of population decline in China at this stage. O’Keeffe at UC Irvine.
“I don’t think there’s a country where the fertility rate is as low as China’s and then bounces back to the replacement rate.”
Many young people cite the rising costs of parenting — including the cost of childcare — amid economic uncertainty.
Beijing-based photographer Rachel Zhang, 33, decided not to have children before she married her husband. The couple lived a lifestyle known as “dual-income, no-children,” Chinese shorthand for couples who have decided not to have children. Sometimes, they talk about having a baby elsewhere in the home.
“I’m very firm about it,” the woman said. Zhang said. “I’ve never had a desire to have children.” The rising costs of raising a child and finding an apartment in a good school district made her determined.
Other factors contribute to a reluctance to have more children, including the burden many young people face of caring for aging parents and grandparents.
China’s strict “zero-Covid” policy – nearly three years of mass testing, quarantine and lockdown, which has led to prolonged separation of some families – may lead to more people deciding not to have children.
form. Ms. Zhu, who got married five years ago, the epidemic made her understand her decision not to have children.
“Especially the epidemic in the past three years,” Ms Zhang said. “I think a lot of things are so hard,” Zhu said.
Li You contributed research, and Keith Bradscher Contribution report.