China's 'long-term time bomb': Falling births drive slow population growth

China's population is growing at its slowest pace since the 1960s, with falling births and a greying workforce presenting the Communist Party with one of its gravest social and economic challenges

By Sui-Lee Wee
Published: May 11, 2021

Two people play Chinese chess whilst seated on a bench in a park in Shanghai, China, on Saturday, April 10, 2021. China's population is aging more quickly than most of the worlds developed economies due to decades of family planning aimed at halting population growth.
Image: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images


China’s population is growing at its slowest pace since the 1960s, with falling births and a graying workforce presenting the Communist Party with one of its gravest social and economic challenges.

Figures for a census conducted last year and released Tuesday showed the country’s population at 1.41 billion people, about 72 million more than the 1.34 billion who were counted in the last census, in 2010.

Only 12 million babies were born in China last year, according to Ning Jizhe, the head of China’s National Bureau of Statistics, the fourth year in a row that births have fallen in the country. That makes it the lowest official number of births since 1961, when a widespread famine caused by Communist Party policies killed millions of people, and only 11.8 million babies were born.

The figures show that China faces a demographic crisis that could stunt growth in the world’s second-largest economy. China faces aging-related challenges similar to that of developed countries, but its households live on much lower incomes on average than the United States and elsewhere.

In other words, the country is growing old without first having grown rich.

“Aging has become a basic national condition of China for a period of time to come,” Ning said at a news conference announcing the results of the census.

China’s population woes could compel Xi Jinping, the country’s top leader, to reckon with the failings of the ruling Communist Party’s family planning policy, which for decades was one of the country’s biggest sources of public discontent. If the trend continues unabated, it risks complicating Xi’s “Chinese dream,” a pledge of long-term economic prosperity and national rejuvenation on which he has staked his legacy.

Beijing is now under greater pressure to abandon its family planning policies, which are among the world’s most intrusive; overhaul an economic model that has long relied on a huge population and a growing pool of workers; and plug yawning gaps in health care and pensions.

“China is facing a unique demographic challenge that is the most urgent and severe in the world,” said Liang Jianzhang, a research professor of applied economics at Peking University and a demography expert. “This is a long-term time bomb.”

The new population figure puts the average annual growth rate at 0.53% over the past decade, down from 0.57% from 2000 to 2010. This leaves it on course to be surpassed by India as the world’s most populous nation in the coming years.

The results of the once-a-decade census also showed that the population is aging rapidly. People over the age of 65 now account for 13.5% of the population, up from 8.9% in 2010. When it was younger, that population was one of China’s greatest strengths.

As the population gets older, it will impose tremendous pressure on the country’s overwhelmed hospitals and underfunded pension system. China also continues to grapple with a huge surplus of single men that has driven problems such as bride trafficking, an unintended consequence of its family planning rules.

These trends are proving difficult to reverse. Three decades after the one-child policy was introduced, attitudes about family sizes have shifted, with many Chinese now preferring to have only one child.

Wang Feng, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine, likened China’s birth control policy to a mortgage that the government has taken out on its future.

“The census results will confirm that the payback time is now,” Wang, an expert on China’s demographic trends, said before the release of the results. “Demography will constrain many of China’s ambitious undertakings.”

In the decades to come, Beijing will face the difficult task of maintaining strong economic growth — and staying globally competitive — as the labor pool shrinks.

“China’s economy might not in the foreseeable future overtake that of the U.S. as the largest economy,” said Julian Evans-Pritchard, a senior China economist at Capital Economics, a research firm. “And the key reason for that is demographic differences.”

China is also maturing far more quickly than most countries, a rate that is rapidly outpacing the government’s meager investments in health care and social services catering to an older population. A central challenge for Beijing is how to help the country’s younger generation care for the swelling ranks of retirees. People under the age of 14 made up 18% of the population, up only slightly from 17% 10 years ago.

The government wants to raise the retirement age, among the world’s lowest at 60 for men and 50 for most women, to ease pressure on the underfunded pension system. China’s main state pension fund, which relies on tax revenues from its workforce, risks running out of money by 2036 if policies remain unchanged, according to research commissioned by the party.

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©2019 New York Times News Service

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